“I was standing when I came to. Not lying down. And it wasn’t a gradual waking process. It was darkness, darkness, darkness, then snap. Me. Now awake.
It was hot. My thin shirt clung to my back and shoulders, and my underwear was bunched into a sweaty wad. The heat left the ground in wavy lines, and the air was tinged blue with diesel exhaust. A woman in a burqa pushed past me. A small man in a ragged red vest ducked around me. He was hunched under the massive steel trunk on his back; the corner of the trunk nicked my shoulder as he maneuvered by. I was in the center of a crowd, half surging for the train, half surging for the exits. I stood still. I had no idea who I was. This fact didn’t panic me at first. I didn’t know enough to panic.” ― David Stuart MacLean
The above scene is the opening page of the memoir The Answer to the Riddle is Me: a Tale of Amnesia. In other words, this unlikely event of coming to consciousness with full amnesia on what we will learn is an Indian train station happened to the author, David Stuart Maclean. Already a writer by profession, American Maclean had stumbled into his version of a Bourne Identity or Memento experience. I am glad Maclean did not write a thriller or a sensationalised account based on the incident, but this sometimes amusing, and yet mostly chilling and frank memoir. This is a gripping and intelligently written book. Yet to discuss it further, I offer a spoiler alert, for one of the most interesting discoveries reading this work is what lies behind Maclean’s case of amnesia.
Behind the amnesia incident
In 2002, David MacLean was a 28-year-old Fulbright scholar in the midst of a research trip to India for a novel when a severe, and sudden, case of amnesia struck. He’d been to India before with no hitches, but on this trip, his anti-malarial medicine caused him to lose his memory. Not that he knew the reason until much later. His amnesia was not merely of the ‘I don’t know where I am, or who’ variety, initially it thrust him into a hallucinatory state, resembling a psychotic episode. Not only the policeman he encountered in his confused frenzied state, but he himself suspected his situation had been induced because he was a drug addict.
Having experienced the hallucinatory aspect of my own amnesia, where in my case I believed I was at the mercy of devils prodding me with pitchforks in the underworld, I admire the way Maclean writes about his amnesia. This material is difficult to render, and he pulls it off brilliantly. As readers, we understand he is so dislodged from his memories and his sense of reality, that when it is suggested that he might be a drug addict, his mind latches onto that possibility and goes with it. This is part of the ‘confabulation’ package that accompanies true-life amnesia and can make you feel completely crazy. Maclean shows how, not having access to his understanding of himself, he easily adapts to others’ ideas of who he is.
Maclean’s amnesia was not short-lived, and after that opening scene it gets worse. He winds up in an Indian psychiatric hospital, in which he reports he was treated very well, and thus these scenes are both gripping and simultaneously debunk some of the negative stereotypes about India we in the West are fed. In fact, Maclean suggests he was glad he had his breakdown in India, not in the West, as he experienced the Indians as relatively compassionate. If anything, we will learn, it is the west’s medical system that has let him down. His worried parents come to India to pick up, and worried they should be. His amnesia continues to dog him.
When Maclean returns home to the States he doesn’t recognise, or relate to, the girlfriend he has been with for a year and doesn’t adjust easily to his other close connections. However, the person he relates to the least of all is his former self. He discovers many around him think his amnesia has been a hoax, as he learns that he is a man prone to pulling pranks. His new self is not impressed. He does not like the sense he forms of this man he has been who jokes around, pulling faces when people take his picture. He suspects people don’t take him seriously. He falls into depression, drinks and withdraws, wrestling with issues brought on by the amnesia, and he slowly emerges to begin an investigation into the drug he learns is responsible for his amnesia.
The anti-malarial culprit
For many years, anyone from the US who travelled to malaria-prone countries was prescribed a drug called Lariam, with the active ingredient being mefloquine. The drug is no longer available under that name in the United States, but generic versions are still accessible. It was this drug that Maclean tells us brought on his condition, and in his memoir, he takes the reader on a tour of its history. Apparently, it was routinely administered to US soldiers. Maclean provides a concise outline of the history of mefloquine. Although the reality of mefloquine risks have been slow to take hold, he was not the first to report on its impact on users. However, coupled with his first-hand account of how taking this anti-malarial changed his life, what he offers is a powerful read and might make you think twice about taking any pharmaceutical prescribed to you without researching it first.
This book is a great read. It brings you into the consciousness of an amnesiac, revealing how harrowing losing one’s memory can be, taking the gloss off any fictional account that might have suggested amnesia is glamorous. Maclean is a writer who can swing from light and entertaining to serious and thought-provoking with ease.
“You’ve done a good job of saying everything but how you feel,” she said. “Sadness isn’t something you get to get out of by being smart. You don’t get to outwit this. You will have to deal with the pain at some point.” ― David Stuart MacLean, The Answer to the Riddle Is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia
Photo credit: Heather Eidson Photography
What they said
The New York Times
"David Stuart MacLean’s first book, “The Answer to the Riddle Is Me,” opens with a scene out of Robert Ludlum: The protagonist wakes from a blackout to find himself on a crowded train platform in India, with no idea who he is or what he’s doing in a foreign country. The catch is that the protagonist is Mr. MacLean himself, and his book isn’t an international thriller but a “memoir of amnesia,” as his agreeably paradoxical subtitle puts it — the true story of how his memory was wiped clean and how that condition has subsequently affected his life. It is all the more thrilling for that." - Gregory Cowley.
"Near the end of the book, Mr. MacLean acknowledges with amused resignation that his story “was most real to others when I talked about pop culture.” His experience was not like that of Geena Davis in “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” discovering a secret talent for cooking, or Guy Pearce in “Memento,” deciphering tattoos to solve the riddle of himself, he says, adding, “It’s not like Matt Damon in ‘The Bourne Identity’ waking up in an ocean, either.” The riff is funny, but this late in the narrative it’s also unnecessary: Thanks to his raw, honest and beautiful memoir, readers will already have a clear idea what his experience was like. We can be grateful Mr. MacLean has remembered so much, and so well." - Gregory Cowley
Los Angeles Times
"One day, David Stuart MacLean forgot who he was. “It was darkness darkness darkness, then snap. Me. Now awake.” He was a blank slate, standing in a bustling train station in India. Things went downhill from there. From these dark days, MacLean has created a deeply moving account of amnesia that explores the quandary of the self." - Meehan Crist
This memoir is often funny, but it is also a gripping account of one man’s midnight of the soul. At his nadir, MacLean aches for the “warm womb of a hospital room, the sharp scrape of a plastic spoon hitting the bottom of a plastic bowl as someone feeds you curd rice, let you be born again, hit the button and be reset again. You got it wrong this time.” Although his vantage point is specific, the valley he looks out on is familiar. He is describing the dark places that any of us could go. - Meehan Crist
MacLean has written a memoir that combines the evocative power of William Styron’s “Darkness Visible,” the lyric subtlety of Michael Ondaatje’s “Running in the Family” and the narrative immediacy of a Hollywood action film. He reminds us how we are all always trying to find a version of ourselves that we can live with. - Meehan Crist
On David Stuart Maclean
David Stuart MacLean is a PEN/American award-winning essayist. His essays and stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Guernica, Bennington Review, Quarterly West, Gulf Coast, The New York Times, the Guardian, and on the radio program This American Life. The Answer to the Riddle Is Me won Best Memoir/Biography by the Society of Midland Authors and was named one of the Best Books of 2014 by Kirkus Reviews. He has a PhD in Literature/Creative Writing from the University of Houston, he was a Fulbright Scholar in India, and is a co-founder of the award-winning Poison Pen Reading Series. He has an MFA in Fiction from New Mexico State University and a BA in English from Warren Wilson College.
He has been a featured speaker at medical conferences, writing conferences, schools, universities, art galleries, and counseling centers.
In 2018, an essay of his titled “The Golden Friendship Club” was named as an honorable mention in both Best American Essays and Pushcart Prizes in Fiction. In 2018 as well, David attended the first ever Quinism Conference and served as the inaugural Sue Rose Lecturer.
He released the novel How I Learned to Hate in Ohio in 2021 with Overlook Press.
David Start Maclean lives in Chicago.