The Answer to the Riddle Is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia
“I kept waiting for the door to open and the police to appear. I was going to be held accountable for all the things I couldn’t remember. I had done such horrible things to people…” In this harrowing walk inside the perceptions of a man psychologically possessed by a medically prescribed drug, we see something of how amnesia teases and torments the mind.
David Stuart MacLean was a Fulbright scholar who went to India to study linguistics. He had been writing and had a promising career ahead. But one day in 2002, he found himself on a train platform somewhere in India with no idea why he was there, no real concept of who he was or who he had ever been. From there, the roller coaster kept going downhill. The kindly Indian staff at a small religiously based clinic took him in. They mistakenly gave him the impression that he was a substance abuser on a bad trip, provoking his worst fears, since he had no way of knowing if it was true.
"In this harrowing walk inside the perceptions of a man psychologically possessed by a medically prescribed drug, we see something of how amnesia teases and torments the mind."
MacLean fell into a hell of hallucinations mingled with reality, at one point convinced that puppeteer Jim Henson was God and had created the universe in a studio in Burbank. Real people and specters from his subconscious composed a distorted world that he only escaped, temporarily, with the help of strong tranquilizers. When his parents finally arrived to take him home, he had to pretend to recognize them, recalling that “my parents being in the room with me was doing things to my brain.”
The book is artfully composed, showing that MacLean is indeed a writer, something he had entirely forgotten when he found himself on that Indian train platform. He has been able to piece together the events of those first few recuperative years of trying to act like a human, a nice guy. In the agony of rebuilding himself, he discovered that he was not a bad, sadistic drug abuser, but someone who had innocently taken an anti-malarial “wonder drug” called lariam. Given the facts, he can count himself lucky. He catalogs the development of this medicine, often given to soldiers serving in the Middle East, and the savage effects it has had on other users, including both homicide and suicide. He cites the military administration of lariam to prisoners at Guantanamo (“Cuba doesn’t have malaria") in what is referred to as “pharmaceutical waterboarding.”
It was a long ride back to something like sanity for David Stuart MacLean. He took up both cigarettes and alcohol as a panacea for the long-term continuing backlash of lariam. He had what he called “banal-mares,” long recurring dreams of “me sitting in a chair in the dark feeling empty.” MacLean is a largely reconstructed person now, with a wife and a life, and a hopeful outlook. But, even so, his story will haunt you as it undoubtedly haunts him.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 17, 2014