How to Reconstruct Your Life From Photographs

UH Creative Writing Program graduate David Stuart MacLean discusses his new memoir about amnesia ahead of his Brazos Bookstore reading tonight.

By Michael Hardy February 7, 2014

David Stuart MacLean

The Answer to the Riddle is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia
Feb 7 at 7
Brazos Bookstore
2421 Bissonnet St

Tonight, author and University of Houston Creative Writing Program graduate David Stuart MacLean reads from his new book, The Answer to the Riddle is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia, at Brazos Bookstore. The memoir is an expansion of MacLean’s 2010 story for This American Life about the experience of waking up in an Indian train station with no idea of who he was or why he was in India. (He was there on a Fulbright fellowship to do research for a book, he later learned.) After a stint in an Indian mental asylum, MacLean returned to his home in Ohio, where he wasn’t able to recognize his parents or his girlfriend. 

As he wrote in a New York Times op-ed, his amnesia was a side effect of mefloquine hydrochloride (brand name Lariam), a commonly prescribed anti-malarial drug. MacLean’s memoir traces the painstaking detective work of reconstructing his identity from old photographs and interviews with his friends and family, while still suffering from lingering side effects like hallucinations and seizures.

Your memoir begins with you waking up in a train station in Secunderabad, India in 2002. It’s such a vivid scene, packed with sensory detail. Is your memory of what happened post-incident good enough that you can remember all those details in such specificity?

Yeah, I remember waking up on that train platform better than I remember dinner last night. It’s so deeply etched into my memory that I remember it very, very well.

What was your first breakthrough in remembering who you were? Was there an ‘A-ha!’ moment?

It was definitely when my parents showed up in the [Indian] asylum. I saw them, and I recognized who they were looking at. By the way they were looking at me I could understand who that person was. That was just a brief flash, and then it was just a slow accretion of memory. 

I don’t believe in catharsis. I don’t think you ever get over something—I think you learn to live better with it. But I’m always going to be haunted by this.

When you started investigating your past, and who you were, did that prompt memories to return or were you creating some sort of substitute memories?

I would say both. I spent a lot of time looking at pictures, and I would sort of create this character of me. I would imagine the kind of jokes that would be told around the picture, the mood that was there, and I could kind of invent a memory around that picture. Which I think isn’t so far off from what any of us do when we look at pictures—we have this sliver of a second, so we kind of provide the context pretty quickly. So that was my job for a while—figuring out that context.

Did people tell you that you seemed like a different person?

My mom has definitely said that I’m a much different person, that I’m much less glib, and less happy-go-lucky. Just more serious. That’s what happens when you get rejected by Jim Henson as God [one of MacLean’s recurring hallucinations]—you get very serious. I’m a rational person, so I can recognize that hallucinations aren’t real. But I can also say that in the same way that if you have a bad dream it takes you a while in the morning to shake out of it, those hallucinations kind of clung to me for years. And the hallucination was that God rejected me from the next level of experience. It sounds hilarious to say it, but that felt awful.

David MacLean

You write that you didn’t remember being a DJ on a college radio show, but you remembered many of the lyrics from songs you played. Is that just a deeper level of memory?

Yeah. I also didn’t lose any motor skills. I didn’t forget how to drive a car, I knew the importance of a passport, I knew that trains connected cities—I knew all of that stuff. What I didn’t know was my personal narrative.

Eventually you decided to return to India and finish your Fulbright. Why?

I balked at the idea that I wasn’t going to be able to finish something that was as competitive as a Fulbright. If I didn’t, I felt like I would never finish anything again. And in the end, that was the smartest decision I made. If I had stayed in Ohio, I would have been confronted again and again by things I was supposed to know but didn’t. Whereas in going back to Secunderabad and Hyderabad, nobody expected the white guy to know anything. People went out of their way to tell me that I didn’t know anything. So then I could just work on foundational personality stuff rather than mourning all of the things I didn’t know. If I’d stayed in central Ohio, I would have killed myself—I have no question about that. 

Tell me about your decision to go to UH to pursue a Ph.D. in creative writing.

It was all Antonya Nelson and Robert Boswell, two of the finest teachers. I saw Boz give a lecture in ’96 when he was a visiting lecturer at Warren Wilson College, and I’ve been a fan ever since. 

You continued having hallucinations and even seizures at UH, right?

I had seizures one night, and some mild hallucinations—the kind of tweaky ones where you see them out of the corner of your eye, and when you turn around they’re gone. I thought I was having a stroke, so I spent a lot of time smiling in the mirror. One of the signs of a stroke is an asymmetrical smile. I went to the doctor and did an MRI, and they wanted to do all these other tests, but instead I decided to go to a writing conference. And that’s where I met the woman who is now my wife, so I totally made the right decision on that one.

What was the experience of writing the memoir like?

For the longest time I either didn’t talk about what happened to me, or I told it in a funny story—“that crazy time in India when I was in an asylum.” So what I had to learn was to not do that, to not write in anecdote. Because anecdote, it turns out, is just a way to insulate ourselves from trauma. Anecdotes are nice, because you control anecdotes, and it becomes this illusion of control. The hard part of writing this book was that I didn’t control the experience. I don’t believe in catharsis. I don’t think you ever get over something—I think you learn to live better with it. But I’m always going to be haunted by this.

In your New York Times op-ed, you write about the side effects of Lariam, which are terrifying. You note that Robert Bales was taking it at one point before he went on his killing spree in Afghanistan. [For many years, the US military prescribed Lariam to the majority of its soldiers.]

The scary thing about Bales is that he was on steroids, he was drinking a lot, and he was on Lariam. That is a perfect storm for terrible behavior. I have no specific knowledge about his case, but when he went on his rampage I immediately thought about Lariam.

Do you still suffer side effects of Lariam?

I have panic attacks, anxiety, and depression that I never had before, so yeah. I think what people expect from memoirs, sometimes, is that you overcome the problem and that you’re weirdly happy that it happened. And I think my memoir says, no, not really. You just learn to walk with new crutches better.


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