For fans of Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire, the courageous memoir of a woman robbed of all her memories by a traumatic brain injury—and her more than twenty-five-year struggle to reclaim her life.
At twenty-two years old, Su Meck was married with two children in 1988 when a ceiling fan in her home fell and struck her in the head. She survived the injury, but when she regained consciousness in the hospital, she didn’t know her own name. She didn’t recognize a single family member or friend, she couldn’t read or write or brush her teeth or use a fork—and she possessed not even a scrap of memory from her life up to that point. The fiercely independent and outspoken young woman she had been vanished completely.
Most patients who suffer amnesia as the result of a head injury eventually regain their memories, but Su never did. After just three weeks in the hospital, she was sent back into a world about which she knew nothing: How do you run a household when you can’t find the grocery store? How do you raise children when you have no memory of being parented yourself? How do you maintain a relationship with your husband when you’ve forgotten everything you once knew about love and sex? Nearly twenty years would pass before a series of personally devastating events shattered the “normal” life she had worked so hard to build siince the accident, and Su realized that she would have to grow up all over again and finally take control of the strange second life she had awoken to.
Su’s indelible voice shines through on every page as she describes the true cost to herself and her family of traumatic brain injury (TBI), and the incredible stamina, resolve, and courage it took for her to build a new life in the face of so much loss. Piercing, passionate, heartbreaking, but ultimately uplifting, Think Again is the true story of a woman determined to live life on her own terms.
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About the Author
Su Meck is pursuing degrees in music and book studies from Smith College. Think Again is her first book; her work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine. She and her husband, Jim, have three grown children and live in Northampton, Massachusetts, with their two Lab Rescue dogs, Fern and Farley, and their two tuxedo cats, Apollo and Athena.
Daniel de Visé is a journalist and author who has worked at The Washington Post, The Miami Herald and five other newspapers in a twenty-three-year career. He shared a 2001 Pulitzer Prize and has garnered many other national and regional journalism awards; his investigative reporting has twice led to the release of wrongly convicted men from life terms in prison. A graduate of Wesleyan and Northwestern universities, he lives with his wife and children in Maryland. He is working on his second book.
Read an Excerpt
I Forgot to Remember
I don’t remember any of what I’m about to tell you. Sure, I know the story, but it is just a story related to me by others, in bits and pieces, over many years. I have attempted to collect those scraps in order to present a narrative that feels real and whole. But it has been difficult. I have had to interpret the story, to picture the scenes in my mind, just as you are about to do. Some of the pieces are missing, because the people who witnessed them have forgotten the details, or because the people have themselves disappeared. Part of what continues to be maddening for me is the number of questions I still have that nobody seems to be able to answer in any kind of satisfactory way. Imagine the defining day of your life, stitched together from other people’s memories.
This story starts on May 22, 1988. It is important to appreciate that what happened on that day was quite literally life changing for many people. Not just me. As I write about what transpired, I will rely chiefly on the memories of my husband, Jim, the only living soul who was present on that day and can recount what happened. Or at least how he remembers it happening. I was there, too, of course, but my memories are lost. My two sons were there, but they were too young to remember what took place that day.
This was the day that my old life ended and my new life began. I died, in a way, and was reborn, with the same physical form, but not the same mind. My body still knew how to do a few of the things I had taught it to do, like play the drums and ride a bicycle. But that’s where the similarities end. The two Sus have lived separate lives. She never knew me, and I know nothing of her except what people have told me. She rebelled; I conform. She broke rules; I follow them. She drank and smoked pot; I don’t even know the taste of beer or wine, and the smell of smoke makes me physically ill. I like vegetables; she hated them. She loved to swim; I am absolutely terrified of the water.
I still to this day sit around with my family and listen to stories about the other Su, in the same way that a child might sit and hear of things that happened before she was born. Our family history has two distinct chapters, Before Su and After Su. My husband, being a computer geek, sometimes calls me Su 2.0.
You might wonder how it feels to wake up one morning and not know who you are. I don’t know. The accident didn’t just wipe out all my memories; it hindered me from making new ones for quite some time. I awoke each day to a house full of strangers. Every morning began with a lesson: Welcome to your new life. And this wasn’t just a few days. It was weeks before I recognized my boys when they toddled into the room, months before I knew my own telephone number, years before I was able to find my way home from anywhere. I have no more memory of those first several years after the accident than my own kids have of their first years of life.
Jim and me in Texas, spring 1986. I am pregnant with Benjamin.
Until recently, I didn’t even know the exact date that the accident happened. Isn’t that sad, not knowing the precise moment when your life changed forever? All I knew, or thought I knew, was that it was a February afternoon in 1988. Jim thought it was a weekday. Those details and facts turned out to be wrong. The hospital records, when we finally got them, put the date of my injury at May 22, a Sunday, three days before Jim’s and my third wedding anniversary.
That particular day started out as a very typical Sunday in the Meck home. The first nine hours of that day were so routine, in fact, that there’s not much Jim remembers for certain. When people remember stuff, it’s usually the remarkable or shocking things, and the first part of that day was utterly unremarkable. It’s the events from later in the day that are unforgettable. Well, not for me. And try to keep in mind that every memory from Jim is scarred by panic, pain, and loss.
Here, then, is what would have happened on a typical Sunday for me in the spring of 1988. I can’t stress enough that this is not a factual account of what transpired that day, but merely an educated guess.
I awoke that morning tangled up in candy-striped flannel sheets on our king-size waterbed. Warm Texas sunshine was already streaming through the arched Spanish-style window of the bedroom, making a crisscross shadow pattern of the decorative wrought-iron bars on our beige carpet.
As I lay in that place halfway between sleep and wakefulness, I looked around the white-walled room and took stock of the facts: I was only twenty-two, and already twice a college dropout, thrust into the routines of marriage and motherhood, transplanted from Main Line Philadelphia to a faceless working-class suburb of Fort Worth. Next to me lay Jim, my husband and the father of my two baby boys. Benjamin, who was just shy of his second birthday, was sleeping in a twin bed in his room, beneath a dinosaur comforter. Patrick, at eight months, slept in his crib in the tiny third bedroom. Because it was a Sunday, Jim and I would head to church with the boys in a few hours. But first, if our early-morning whispers with each other did not wake the boys, Jim and I may have quickly and quietly made love. Afterward, we may have talked about plans for our wedding anniversary as well as Benjamin’s second birthday. Both were coming up. Our anniversary was in just three days. Were reservations already made for a fancy dinner out? Did we have a babysitter lined up? Did we exchange cards? Gifts? Benjamin’s birthday was only ten days away. Were there birthday gifts for him already bought, wrapped, and hidden away somewhere? Had I sent birthday party invitations to a bunch of the neighborhood kids? Or maybe that’s something that I was going to do after church that day.
We eventually got up and padded off to the shower together, tiptoeing across the worn carpet on soft feet, still trying our best not to wake the boys. After showers and dressing, I poked my head into Benjamin’s room to get him up and going before heading to change Patrick’s diaper and get him his morning bottle. As I carried Patrick toward the kitchen, I couldn’t help but glance at the walls in the hallway lined with dozens of framed photos of our young family: Benjamin being held by my parents, dressed in his white baptismal outfit; another of Benjamin, sleeping facedown in his cake on his first birthday; Jim and me out in Middle-of-Nowhere, Texas, holding hands with strangers during Hands Across America; a photo of my tiny, premature baby, Patrick; and then other pictures as he fattened up; pictures taken at our wedding; our first Christmas together; the four of us moving into this, our first house.
That was my life. Was it the life I wanted?
Had I always dreamed of marrying at nineteen and having a child at twenty, and another child just one year later? Did I really envision myself dropping out of college and living as a homemaker in Fort Worth? Probably not. But if my life wasn’t proceeding quite according to plan, was there some other plan? Did I wake up that morning to any pangs of regret, or of resignation? Did I lie in bed sometimes and fantasize of escape, silently wishing myself away from this family and this home? Did I still think of or dream about my high school boyfriend? I imagine I did. After all, he and I had dated for more than three years. Did I ever wonder where he was or what he was doing? Did I even have time for any of this wondering, wishing, and thinking, or did I just accept things as they were? Everyone has secrets, don’t they? What were mine? I will never know. Jim, my husband, remembers what I was like back then, but his memories are not mine. And there are limits to what one person can really know of another. Jim can barely remember what I said and did back then. How could he possibly know what I thought about?
It was a thirty-minute drive to First Presbyterian, a huge church along the Trinity River in downtown Fort Worth. Jim and I probably entered the sanctuary a few minutes late after dropping Benjamin and Patrick off with the attendants in the nursery. We sat in roughly the same place every Sunday, on the right-hand side in front of the pulpit, halfway down the aisle. Never too close to the front, like the good Presbyterians we were. For the next hour, Jim and I sang the hymns, recited readings, prayed, and listened to the sermon, something I can’t even imagine now. Church is one of those things that the new me has never quite figured out. I still don’t fully understand the endless monologues about this man named Jesus who lives everywhere while being invisible, who is dead but still alive, both father and son. I have no idea if I in fact had faith or even believed in God before. But after the accident, I found myself wishing that instead of having to sit through an hour-long church service, I could instead slip away and join my sons in their Sunday school classrooms, where perhaps things were explained a bit more clearly.
After church, we returned home to our ranch house on El Greco Avenue, a tiny house with the water heater tucked right inside the front hall closet to save space. I cannot recall that house on El Greco, but Jim has shown me pictures. It was a tract home in a working-class neighborhood called Wedgwood, south of downtown Fort Worth. All the homes in that neighborhood, constructed in the mid-1970s, were built for first-time homeowners. It was a neighborhood of pregnant moms and strollers, older station wagons, and backyard barbecues. Our house at 6609 El Greco was indistinguishable from all the others. There was a house just like ours to the left, and another on our right. We moved into it in 1987, hoping to settle down and stay put after five moves in and around Fort Worth in just two years.
It was my habit in those days to sit outside on the ribbed, folding lawn chair on our back patio with a fresh legal pad for a Sunday-afternoon routine of letter writing while the kids played in the yard. I was a good writer back then, with a broad vocabulary of SAT words and a confident, flowing script. Family and friends all lived far away from us, so I regularly included updated photos of the boys in my letters. One letter for my parents, one for my grandparents, letters for my brothers and sisters, possibly one for my high school friend Kathy and another for Michele, my college roommate. One for each of the people I was about to forget.
When I was in high school, I lived with my family in a wealthy Philadelphia suburb. I was the fourth of five children, and I wanted for nothing. My father was a chemical engineer, my mother an overachieving stay-at-home mom who did more in five minutes than most moms accomplished in a whole day. I was made in their image, with a clever mind, musical talent, an athletic body, and a determined, but reasonably stubborn personality.
But I ended up labeled as the Millers’ rebellious child. In fifth grade, when I was asked to pick a musical instrument, I chose the drums. In high school, I drank, smoked pot, and partied hard, though I still managed to earn mostly A’s and B’s. I went to college at Ohio Wesleyan University, a private liberal arts school, with a pretty campus in the town of Delaware, just north of Columbus. At the beginning of my sophomore year, I got pregnant and had an abortion. At the end of my sophomore year, I dropped out of college, got married, moved to Texas, started school at Texas Christian University, got pregnant again, and dropped out again, all by the age of twenty.
I married at nineteen, over my parents’ strong objections. It’s weird for me to think about, but I was, then, younger than my daughter, Kassidy, is now. My parents apparently couldn’t stop me. I sure as hell would stop her. Or at least I hope I would. What was it about me that couldn’t be stopped? What about me was so uncontrollable? To run off and get married at nineteen? I would go to the ends of the earth before I would let my daughter do that. What about me could my parents not stop? That’s a big question for me now, and I don’t have an answer. Nobody does.
I was a drummer in the Conestoga High School Pioneer Marching Band during the golden years of the early 1980s.
I met Jim at Ohio Wesleyan my freshman year. He was a junior and had seen me in the OWU Look Book, the book put out by the school with all the pictures of new freshman and transfer students, in the fall of 1983. He walked up to me at a band practice that September and said, “Oh, hi, you must be Su. You’re a freshman here, right?” He says I looked at him as if he was dog shit I had just scraped off my shoe. Both of us were in other relationships. But late that fall, we ended up in a car together on a weekend canoe outing with his fraternity and my sorority. On the way back, in a Wendy’s drive-through, he kissed me.
Four years later, Jim was a twenty-four-year-old software engineer at General Dynamics, a campus of forty-thousand workers across from Carswell Air Force Base, and part of the Strategic Air Command. GD and Carswell AFB were cogs in the tank-tread wheels of the old Cold War America. He left at 7:15 each morning in jeans, loafers, and a polo shirt and spent his days writing software for F-16 fighter jets. Many of our neighbors were young single-income families whose husbands and fathers also worked at General Dynamics. Mike and Pam Knote, for example, lived right across the street and were only a few years older than we were, with two boys of their own, a five-year-old and a toddler. Mike Knote went off to work at General Dynamics every day, just like Jim. Pam stayed home, just like me.
During the day, Jim and I seldom spoke to each other. His scheduled work hours usually ended at four, but most days he worked late into the evenings in order to get the overtime. So I never really knew when he was going to arrive home. He didn’t like me to call him at work, but I was okay with that. I was happy to sit at home and wait to eat with him after feeding the boys their supper. The evening entertainment was usually books or a video. And there was always music playing.
My Conestoga High School senior portrait that was used in the freshman Look Book at Ohio Wesleyan University in fall 1983.
I loved rock-and-roll music, mostly from the 1960s and 70s, as well as all the great current 1980s stuff. I still have all of my old vinyl records and a huge cassette-tape collection. More than anything, I liked and often played along with my favorite drummers: Neil Peart from Rush, Keith Moon from the Who, Nick Mason from Pink Floyd, John Bonham from Led Zep, and, of course, Ringo. Unfortunately, we ended up having to sell my drum kit early in our marriage. There were bills to pay. After the accident, Jim remembers me putting on records and dancing around the living room with the boys. Maybe we did that before the accident, too. Maybe we had danced around the living room on that very Sunday afternoon in May.
We had resided in the house on El Greco for less than a year, but Jim already knew the way to the hospital. I was apparently accident-prone. Less than three years earlier, at our wedding, my father had taken Jim aside and told him, “Find the nearest emergency room as soon as you get to Texas, because about every six months, Su finds a need to be there.”
In our short time living on El Greco, I had already proven him right. Eight months earlier, a fierce bout of influenza had sent me into early labor. Patrick was born in the hospital downtown, a month premature and weighing not quite four pounds. We called him our little spider monkey. A few months after that, Benjamin, while throwing a typical eighteen-month-old’s temper tantrum, had hurled a heavy wooden Playskool truck through the window in our bedroom, creating a hole the size of a volleyball in the glass. Impulsive and impatient, I reached through the broken glass to pick up the truck and somehow managed to slice through the webbing between my thumb and forefinger, badly injuring my hand. When I couldn’t get the bleeding to stop on my own, I called Jim. He drove right home and took me to the ER. I ended up needing nineteen stitches both inside my hand and out.
As we settled into our evening routine on that Sunday in May, Jim thinks that he and I talked about the possibility of renting a movie after the kids had gone to bed. Then our thoughts turned to, “What shall we eat for dinner?”
Later I was clattering around the electric stove making macaroni and cheese, adding dollops of Velveeta to the pot because that was the way Benjamin liked it, smooth and creamy with no lumps. I may have been planning to boil some peas in another pot. Jim sat at the kitchen table, reading the Sunday edition of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and playing the part of suburban dad. Benjamin sat in his high chair eating Cheerios. I may have also been fixing a bottle of milk for Patrick, who was crawling around entertaining himself with his toys on the carpet in the family room right off the kitchen.
It’s the next moment when Jim’s memories come into sharp focus. He distinctly remembers seeing Patrick out of the corner of his eye, crawling from the family room into the kitchen.
Nobody knows what exactly happened next. Jim’s back was turned. “I hear this noise,” Jim recalls. “I have only an auditory memory of what it sounded like. I remember being startled. I turn, and this is the picture: It’s something out of the movie Carrie, where I’m standing, I’m turning, you’re holding out Patrick, and as you’re handing him to me, you’re collapsing, blood flowing from your head down your front.” As I crumpled to the floor, Jim says he watched the light in my eyes go out.
For a few seconds, Jim just stood there, his mind not yet comprehending what had happened.
“I’m trying to figure out what to do next,” he recalls, “because what I’m seeing makes no sense.”
My body lay on the floor in a heap, inert. The ceiling fan hovered a foot or so above me. Somehow, those facts were connected.
Jim’s moment of paralysis passed. He stepped around my fallen body and the swaying ceiling fan and crossed the kitchen to the telephone hanging on the wall just around the corner. With Patrick in one arm and the phone in the other, he dialed 911.
“Nine-one-one. What is your emergency?”
“I’m in my house. My wife has collapsed.”
“All right, sir. Is she breathing?”
“I don’t know.”
“All right, sir. We’ll get someone there as soon as we can.”
Patrick’s voice had risen to a wail, and by the end of the call, Jim was shouting over it. Jim gave the dispatcher our address and hung up the phone. Benjamin sat in his high chair, speechless, his eyes fixed on the floor where his mommy lay.
Jim stood in the kitchen and studied the scene. I lay on the floor, a pool of blood expanding outward from the gash in my forehead. Above my limp body swung the ceiling fan, now freakishly suspended by a frayed cord. Jim’s eyes followed the cord to the ceiling and saw the bare hook that had once held it sticking out from a ragged hole in the plaster. I wonder now about that fan. Were there any other exposed wires hanging down? Was it a fire hazard? Wasn’t Jim worried about himself or the boys getting electrocuted? How could he have left it hanging there? How is it that the oddly dangling fan could have been ignored?
The fan had come with the house. Nothing in its previous behavior had given us cause for alarm. It was quiet, well balanced, and it had always cooled the kitchen nicely.
For a few moments, panic receded and Jim’s engineer brain asserted itself. He pieced together what he thinks might have happened: “I thought back, and I can remember you saying, ‘Weeee,’ ” Jim recalls. “And I’m thinking, so, you walked over to Patrick and said, ‘Weeee,’ and picked him up. As you held him up, over your head, either his back or his feet hit the fan, and it came crashing down on you.” He reenacts this scene for me with a pillow.
I have often thought about Patrick: By what miracle was he totally unharmed? How is it the fan did not hit him? How was it that I was able to hand him to Jim before collapsing? And what about Benjamin? Jim says he was right there, sitting in his high chair. What did he see? His mom lying on the floor, in a pool of blood? How awful would that be for him? Thankfully, he says he doesn’t remember anything about that day.
Jim considered what to do next. He knew enough first aid to know not to try to move me. He thought, “Okay, the ambulance is coming and they’re going to take you. I need to figure out somewhere for the boys to be.” He scooped them up and dashed across the street to the Knotes, our neighbors and friends.
Pam Knote opened the door. Jim said, “There’s been an accident. The ambulance is coming. Can I leave the guys with you?”
Pam recalls that Jim looked “calm but frantic, you know, very urgent.” The tone in his voice told her there was no time to explain. “I mostly remember him just handing me Patrick.” She left all four kids with her husband, Mike, and set off across the street with Jim to put together a diaper bag.
The photo of Patrick reaching the magic five-pound weight so he could leave the hospital. This hung in the hallway of our home on El Greco.
An ambulance had arrived by this point and now sat parked outside our home; Jim and Pam walked in to find two paramedics tending to me. “You were lying on the kitchen floor,” Pam recalls. “There was blood on your face and under your head. The paramedics were asking you some questions, and you were able to respond, but I don’t know how coherent you were.”
Pam, too, remembers seeing the ceiling fan dangling near the floor. She also saw, protruding from the ceiling, “a hook with a lip on it that should have been up in the ceiling but wasn’t.” As she took in the scene, she marveled that I had somehow managed to keep the fan from hurting my baby. “That was your first instinct as a mom,” Pam remembers thinking to herself, “to protect Patrick.” Pam collected diapers, bottles, blankets, and changes of clothing, stuffed everything into a bag, and headed back across the street to Benjamin and Patrick, leaving Jim to stay with me.
Jim hovered over the paramedics. One looked up, gestured across the room, and said, “Sir, please stand over there and stay out of our way.”
A paramedic shined a bright pen light into my pupils. One of them had shrunk to a pinprick; the other had swelled. Neither one responded to the light the way it should. Jim watched the men stick pins in my fingers and then heard one of them say, “She’s completely unresponsive.”
Was I awake? Jim and Pam’s accounts differ on this point. Pam says she remembers me speaking to the paramedics. But is she really just remembering them speaking to me? Jim says he doesn’t remember hearing my voice or seeing me stir at any point, not in the seven minutes from when the fan hit me till the paramedics arrived, nor in the ten minutes from their arrival until my body was whisked away on a backboard. But his memories of that day are colored by panic and shock. When he heard the paramedics say, “She’s completely unresponsive,” did they mean that I was out cold, or merely that some of my fingers and toes were numb and failing to react to the prick of a pin?
A second rescue unit pulled up; this one was a full-size fire truck. An incident commander entered the house with two or three other men in heavy fire jackets and hats. Two of them carried a backboard that was meant for me.
A big red fire engine with flashing lights and firefighters rushing around in jackets and hats must have made for quite a scene outside the door of our little home. Did our neighbors step outside to see what was going on? Did they stay indoors and peer through curtains? Did other people on El Greco wonder what could have drawn the Fort Worth Fire Department to the Mecks’ door? Did they care?
Inside our house no one was talking much, but Jim remembers glimpsing the frequent nonverbal cues passed back and forth between the commander and the paramedics, a faint shaking of heads and furrowing of brows, all seeding a sense of foreboding. “I remember them being very grim,” Jim recalls. “You know: it just did not look good, not good at all.”
The paramedics bandaged an inch-long gash on my forehead: such a small wound, but so much blood, pooling in a three-foot diameter around my head. Workers carefully fitted a cervical brace around my neck. Then several of them encircled me and ever so gently lifted me onto the backboard. They strapped my body to the board and rushed out of the house to load me into the ambulance.
Jim asked if he could come along. “No, sir,” a paramedic told him, “you can’t go in the ambulance. We aren’t covered for that.”
The ambulance door swung closed, and I began my journey to the hospital. I would like to tell you that the paramedic gazed pensively at my vital signs, steadied my wounded head, held my hand, and even though I couldn’t hear the words, he told me in a thick Texas accent, “Everything’s gonna be just fine.” But Jim wasn’t there, and I don’t remember, so there is nothing more to tell.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for I Forgot to Remember includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Su Meck. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
At twenty-two, Su Meck was married with two children when a ceiling fan fell and struck her on the head. She survived the injury, but when she regained consciousness in the hospital, she didn’t know her own name, didn’t recognize a single family member or friend, couldn’t read or write or brush her teeth or use a fork—and she had no memories of her life. No one had any idea how bad her memory loss really was, and after only three weeks she was sent back into the world to raise her children and run a household, even though she had no idea how to do any of it. For more than twenty years, Su wrestled not only with questions of who she really was and who she wanted to be but how to simply get by day by day. I Forgot to Remember is the story of a woman who had to grow up all over again and finally take control of the strange second life she had awoken to.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. A memoir by a woman with no memories is a strange concept, but how different is it from other memoirs, which tend to be pulled together from long-ago memories? Do you trust Su’s story more—as it’s been pieced together from many sources—or less than you would a memoir by another writer? What does your answer say about the nature of the genre?
2. Su talks about the difficulties of parenting with no memories of being parented. In what ways are we all reliant on the parenting skills we’ve been taught? Do the roles her children take on in reaction to her needs support your answer?
3. After the accident, Su relies on routines to make her days make sense. How much do you rely on routines to structure your life? If your routines were taken away, would you be as confused as Su? Why or why not?
4. One of the more frustrating experiences for Su was when people believed her memory loss stemmed from psychological, not physical, sources. Do you think it matters what caused it? How might its cause change your perception of Su’s injuries and the difficulties she faces?
5. “I think I was probably trying to prove how genuine I really was, somehow. Because inside I felt so much like a fraud.” Do you think all of us do this on some level? Why or why not?
6. How reliable of a narrator do you think Su is? Do you find it problematic that Jim gets so many basic facts about her accident wrong? What about the memories of the other people, such as her kids? How much do you trust their memories? How does it affect your reading?
7. In what ways do the various settings—the tract house in Texas, the homes in suburban Maryland, the deluxe but stifling hotel in Egypt—shape the events that took place there and how we understand them?
8. Su has no memories of her life before the accident and very few of the years that immediately followed. She is dependent on other people’s memories of what happened to understand her own life. How different is this from the way the rest of us live? Are we all, in some way, a reflection of other people’s ideas about us? Why or why not?
9. Jim is one of the more complicated people in the book. In some ways, he comes off as a saint, helping and teaching and loving Su. On the other hand, he is largely absent, is verbally and physically abusive, and cheats on her. Do you ultimately see more good than bad in Jim? Why or why not? What do you make of the fact that Su loves him anyway?
10. “I have always loved Jim, and I have never loved Jim. In a way, Jim was assigned to me. I never really had a say.” How much do we choose who we love? How much of it do you think is circumstance?
11. After Su finds out Jim has had multiple affairs and spent tens of thousands of dollars on other women, things are rough between them, but she ultimately forgives him. Why do you think she did? Did she have any other choice? Do you think it shows weakness or strength on her part? Would you have forgiven Jim?
12. Toward the end of the book, Su finds out that she had an old boyfriend named Neal, a man her friends and family assure her was her first love. She has no memory of him, but then she remembers that there was a time when she didn’t remember or love her husband or children either. “And yet the expectation, and eventually the reality, was that I loved all of these people.” What does this say about the nature of love? Do you believe love must be immediate, or can it grow over time? Is romantic love different than maternal love? Do we choose love, or does it choose us?
13. “If I didn’t have Jim, I wouldn’t have me.” In light of all Jim has put Su through, and in light of all he did for her, do you agree? Is Su who she is largely because of Jim? Do you think she would have become a different person if she had married Neal? How do the people we surround ourselves with shape who we become?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Have each person in the group write down their memories of the happiest day of their life. What sorts of details do you remember? What would happen if you lost this memory?
2. Watch a movie about memory loss, such as Memento, The Bourne Identity, 50 First Dates, Mulholland Drive, or Spellbound. How is memory loss portrayed differently in these movies than in this book?
3. Research one of the organizations that raises awareness of and money for traumatic brain injury, including the Brain Trauma Foundation (https://www.braintrauma.org/) and Nick Kot Charity for TBI (http://www.nickkotcharitynfp.com/). Could your group organize a bake sale or other fund-raiser to support these worthy causes?
A Conversation with Su Meck In the introduction, you talk about the difficulty of writing a memoir with no memories of the first twenty-two years of your life. Did you find the process easier or harder than you imagined? Did you uncover things you didn’t expect?
Not that I ever imagined writing any of this, but I have to say that writing this book was way harder than I ever could have imagined. I do think maybe memoirs are the hardest kind of book to write, in general, because memoirs force writers to put themselves onto the page, warts and all. And being able to do that honestly and effectively is a real challenge, I would think, for anyone. This process was obviously made more difficult for me because I didn’t have a clear understanding of who I was, and even still am, in the first place. I explore this concept in the book, but I cannot even really begin to explain how problematic it was, and still is, having to depend so much on the varied, often contradictory, stories of others.
Yes, there were many unexpected things that were uncovered. The biggest of all is the degree to which my family and friends saw me as back to normal and pretty much fine—with just a few “memory issues”—simply because that’s what they wanted to see and believe. There were so many strange incidents that happened that were overlooked; so many odd remarks that I made that were ignored; tons of little quirks that I had that were simply disregarded over the years. And on the flip side, and just as astonishing, is the degree to which I was an actual accomplice to all of this. I have asked people—mostly Jim and my parents—numerous times over the past two years as I have been writing, “Didn’t you think it was weird that I said that? Or acted that way?” They will often laugh and then give me pretty much the same answer every time: “Well, we do now!” And then those same people will admit to me that they didn’t understand and realize all of the difficulties I was having.
I have gained a far greater appreciation for everything my kids have done for me through the years. That being said, I also feel guilty that I didn’t even ever realize their incredible efforts on my behalf all along. It must have been such a struggle for them at times. The dynamics of our family were clearly far from conventional, and yet Benjamin, Patrick, and Kassidy just accepted things the way they were and did what needed to be done.
Tell us about the process of writing this memoir. You mention in the book that you had trouble meeting deadlines because you find time difficult to keep straight in your mind. Dan de Visé, who wrote the initial article about you in The Washington Post, helped with the research and writing. Was that an easy process? How collaboratively did you work?
I met Dan de Visé for the first time in the spring of 2011, when he came to our house to interview me for the Washington Post article. When I made the decision to attempt to write a book about my experiences, I was initially more than a little bit overwhelmed and daunted by the task, so I asked Dan if he would be willing to help me. Dan agreed, and our first task was to write a book proposal that would be sent around to several publishing houses to gauge interest. Dan came back to the house a few times that summer, and through our conversations, he collected various anecdotes that could be used for the book proposal. Neither Dan nor I had ever written a book proposal—I had never even heard of a book proposal—and we didn’t get too much guidance, so we were a bit like the blind leading the blind at first.
Then, Jim and I left Maryland late in August and moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, in order for me to start at Smith College in the fall. From that point on, Dan and I rarely spoke and I haven’t seen him in person since August 2011. He interviewed my parents, my sister Barb, and Neal at one point, and also spoke to Jim a few times when he had specific questions. But for the most part, aside from a handful of e-mails, we didn’t really collaborate at all. I did my thing, and Dan did his.
It had been my original plan to try to write for the book every day, seven days a week. But I found it extremely hard to work on my book on the days and weeks when I also had to write papers for my Smith College classes. For whatever reason, I couldn’t ever switch gears effectively between academic writing and the kind of writing I used when telling my story. Because of that limitation, great portions of the book came from hours and hours spent writing during my winter and spring breaks from school. And then additional large sections were written in Josten Library during the summer after my first year. Mostly because it was one place on campus that was quiet and had air-conditioning.
Do you think your friends and family will be surprised by some of what they read in this book? What do you hope their reaction will be?
I didn’t initially think who people that know me well, especially my family, would be shocked by what I had written. But when I e-mailed out copies of a nearly finished manuscript to my parents and my brothers and sisters, I got some surprising reactions. Some of my sister Barb’s comments: “How did you manage to survive this?” And “I want to cry at parts of your story and I can only be thankful that you don’t remember much of what happened during this time.” And then my brother Mark: “The whole story helps me to understand the context through which you were functioning. I (probably like everyone else) just assumed after a little while that you were fine. Thank you for helping me to understand the whole picture.”
My parents’ reaction was a mixed bag. I am certain they are proud of me, but I got a phone call from my mom late in August, and she mentioned that she hadn’t been sleeping well “since reading my book.” I was intrigued. She went on to say that all of the “language” and “the teenage sex” were getting to her and that I shouldn’t include any of that stuff. She said things like “What will all our friends think?” and “I raised you kids better than that!”
I was certainly upset by her reaction, because, like most authors, I want people to read my book and like it, or even love it! But I also know realistically that not everyone who reads my book will like it, or even believe it. And I will have to learn how to be okay with that.
You hadn’t seen most of your medical records until you started working on this book, and then, you say, they raised more questions than answers. How did it feel to see the discrepancies between what different doctors said? How did you decide, especially so long after the fact, who to believe?
had not seen any of my medical records from Texas until 2012, and I was more than a little disappointed by them. I was truly expecting that after reading through these official documents, I would somehow have all the answers to all of my questions, and then writing this book would be a snap, or at least easier. Instead, the medical records did just the opposite by raising even more questions. I ended up having to depend on what people told me about my time in the hospital instead of accepting a lot of what was in my records as the truth. I honestly still don’t know what to make out of all the inconsistencies and outright mistakes detailed in my records.
How have common perceptions of amnesia—what you refer to as “Hollywood amnesia”—affected how people respond to your story?
Most people have a fairly consistent reaction when they find out about me: “OMG! You’re kidding! You don’t remember anything from your childhood?” Sometimes I get: “You poor thing!” But the thing people have to keep in mind is that I don’t know any differently. This is my life. And for a long time I didn’t even realize that I was impaired in any way, so, except for the lightning episodes, and almost unknowingly trying to blend in, I was fairly unaware and mostly content.
For me, what is especially interesting now is connecting with other people in the TBI community who have had similar experiences with amnesia, and similar reactions from the medical community regarding their amnesia.
I recently discovered www.brainline.org, a fabulous website that posts information on “preventing, treating, and living with traumatic brain injury.” Publishing this kind of information online opens up endless avenues for discussion, ideas, treatments, and services to anyone dealing with TBI in any way.
You mention that some people prefer your new personality to who you were before. Do you find statements like that hard to deal with? How do you typically respond?
For many years I think I was mostly confused when people would say things like that. I didn’t necessarily equate “personality” to “the way I acted” or “my character.” I was under the impression that my “personality” was me. I thought of it as more “person me” because the end of the word, ty, even rhymed with, and was therefore connected somehow to me. Go figure! I would get frustrated and confused that people would say that I was not meanymore, and yet somehow that was a good thing. But then I would also be told, “You always loved to swim!” or “Don’t you remember when we went [somewhere] and you did [something] and you were so funny?” I never knew quite how to react. Most of the time I just laughed and went along with whatever was said.
In 2010, when I started to openly talk about all of this, I began to gain an appreciation for what it meant to be my own person, with my own thoughts and feelings about things. Taking classes and working toward a degree at Montgomery College helped me to realize that I could think for myself and develop my own personality. And it didn’t really matter that I didn’t have the same personality as I used to. Who I “used to be” was all but irrelevant. This new awareness that I had for myself was a really big deal!
These days I attempt to ignore it when such things are said. I have a little bit more faith in myself now than I used to, and I am who I am. Not to say that it isn’t incredibly easy for me to slip back into my old habits, where I actively try to figure out “who exactly am I supposed to be right now” and “how am I supposed to be acting.” But for the most part, I just try my best to be me. To be Su.
You talk a lot about how your kids took care of you when they were young, and mention that you and Kassidy grew up together. Now that your kids are grown up, do you feel that your relationship is more parental, or are you something more like friends?
Remember, I am more grown up now, too!
I don’t think I ever had what could be honestly called a “parental” relationship with my kids. I acted like a parent sometimes by doing and saying stuff that I observed other parents doing and saying. Especially when we were out and about with other families. But when it was just the four of us, we acted more like siblings with each other. We argued like siblings, we shared inside jokes like siblings, we competed with each other like siblings often do, and sometimes we even teamed up with, and against, each other.
So many parenting books talk about how it is best if parents give their children definitive rules and guidelines, because children crave those kinds of boundaries. Parenting books will often also say that one of the worst things parents can do is to try to be friends with their children. But then I think there are probably as many different ways to raise children as there are parents and children. In my case, my kids and I continue to be the best of friends.
How did you choose the song title that starts off every chapter?
Each chapter had a dozen or more songs associated with it when I began writing. As chapters became more finalized, I either totally got rid of or sometimes just moved certain song titles to other chapters. Somehow they needed to feel to me as if they fit with the chapters. I wanted every chapter title to give subtle hints—and sometimes not so subtle—to the reader as they read.
One other “rule” I had for myself was that a different band or artist would represent every chapter. I could have just as easily picked songs from only the Who or Queen or Pink Floyd, for example, for every chapter, but I wanted the variety, because there’s so much music that I love.
Are you still enrolled at Smith College? What are you studying? What has been your favorite thing about being there?
I am currently enrolled in my first semester of my senior year at Smith College, with my plan being to graduate in May 2014. I am a proud member of the Ada Comstock Scholars—the one hundred nontraditional-age students on campus. In fact, one of my best Smith memories was performing in the first annual “Ada Monologues” in the spring of 2012.
I am a music major at Smith, with a book studies concentration. As a drummer, my future aspirations include being part of a local rock band someday. Unfortunately, that particular aspiration hasn’t always fit in too well with the mostly classical course of study here at Smith. But I have had fun being a part of, and performing with, the Smith College Glee Club, the Chamber Singers, and the Smith Handbell Choir.
Since being at Smith, I have become a strong proponent of a liberal arts education as I learn how to think about, write about, communicate with, explain to, argue with, and consider differing opinions of people throughout the world. I also have had a wonderful work-study job in Smith’s main library—Neilson Library—since my first semester. I get to work for the best supervisor ever—Joe Bialek—processing new books and media; processing and sending broken, sad books to the bindery; searching for lost books; and occasionally shelving. I sometimes think that what I have learned working every day in Neilson Library is just as important as what I have learned from my professors and fellow classmates in my classes.
What’s next for you? What do you hope to do when you graduate from Smith?
I plan on staying here in Paradise—a nickname for Northampton, Massachusetts, because it was known as “the Paradise City” in the 1850s—and I hope to write another book or two.
There are so many other situations, people, and anecdotes that, for whatever reason, were edited out of this book. In a perfect world, I would be given the chance to rewrite and publish a lot of that material, giving me the opportunity to explain even further what it is like to live both as someone with TBI as well as offer some more insight, from Jim’s perspective, as to what it is like to live with someone with TBI. Plus, I would very much enjoy writing about my adventures as a student here at Smith. My time here has been quite the wild ride.
I also have a vague idea in my head for a series of children’s books that might help explain TBI in a more kid-friendly way—without all the language and teenage sex. I am certainly no artist, so I have preliminarily asked my sister Diane if she would perhaps be willing to be my illustrator. What fun it would be to work so closely with Diane if these books actually become a reality. You end by saying that you hope your story brings awareness of traumatic brain injury. What can your readers do to help spread the word about the devastating affects of this condition?
If something should happen to me, somehow preventing me from having the chance to do anything more in my lifetime, it is my greatest hope that this book can one way or another at least start to help people understand and appreciate exactly how debilitating TBI can be. This condition exhibits itself in people in so many different ways, with very few of those ways even considered to a skeptical medical community. It would be great if people with TBI could find their own ways to speak out and spread the word about their conditions and their own experiences even if it means getting viewed by others with suspicion. I never realized what a horrible disservice I did to people with similar circumstances as me by staying quiet, and trying to be invisible, for so long. Looking back, I was kind of selfish. And I cannot explain the great relief it has been to share my story.
I also cannot stress enough how important it is for caretakers of people with TBI to please be patient. It is oftentimes left up to you to be the one and only advocate for your struggling spouse, parent, child, sister, or brother. And that role is not going to be an easy one for a variety of reasons. Doctors, nurses, therapists, and even friends and relatives may think that you are just as crazy as the person suffering from TBI. The person who you are trying your best to care for may drive you to drink, or worse. If there are children involved, please look out for their safety. It was but for the grace of God that Benjamin, Patrick, Kassidy, and I all lived to tell this tale. But I think my story shows that with time, remarkable things can happen.