David Stuart MacLean and The Answer to the Riddle Is Me, A Memoir of Amnesia
David Stuart MacLean
Photo by Heather Eidson Photography
It was on October 27, 2002, that author and former Houstonian David Stuart MacLean woke up on a train platform in India with no idea of who or where he was. His memory was blank. MacLean, a graduate of the University of Houston writing program and co-founder of the Poison Pen Reading series, had no memory that he was an award winning writer or popular creative writing teacher, that there were people who loved him and people he loved.
Officials at first thought MacLean was a drug user who had blanked out after a binge, and they took him to a mental asylum. With no idea of what had happened, MacLean accepted that explanation. The police officer who found him helped him to write an e-mail to his parents in the United States. It read, in part:
I am in trouble. ... I am currently very confused and lost. .. Would it be all right if I came home to stay with you? I will endeavor to be a better son and earn your respect back. Please know that I am very sorry that I ever touched these drugs, and this experience has taught me never to do so again.
MacLean was later told he had had a psychotic break and was suffering from amnesia due to Lariam, a fairly common medication prescribed for malaria.
MacLean has since worked on filling in the blanks of his life history, rediscovering who he was and what he had done. The Answer to the Riddle is Me is MacLean's memoir of that time, a look at the history of malaria (no, it hasn't been wiped out) and Lariam (upon which the FDA recently imposed a "black box" warning).
MacLean says the first emotions he remembers after waking up were intense feelings of guilt. That's not surprising since he had immediately been told he was a binging drug addict and a source of significant pain to his parents. The fact that he had vivid hallucinations during those first few days, one of which featured Jim Henson as God who denied MacLean access to the next level of experience, also didn't help.
"That's funny, I know, but it's also soul-wrecking. I felt like I had failed, not just personally, but as a soul. I was convinced there was a litany of terrible, Trainspotting level things that I had done. So I looked for people who confirmed that judgement of me. If any of us went out into the world looking for people who could tell us how terrible we are, and that's all we were listening to, you'd be stunned at how many people are ready to do that."
Even people who told MacLean positive stories about himself managed to feed his feelings of guilt at the same time. "It was great to find out that I was a good teacher. That was wonderful. I had this one student who called me up, and that was really sweet. We talked about this old paper he had written ... it was about cancer. Since writing that paper, he had gotten testicular cancer and he said he knew I would think that was hilarious. That was a weird. I was really glad that my students liked me and trusted me. And at the same time, I was concerned that they would think I would find something like cancer funny."
Some people might think that having all their memories wiped out, being able to start over from scratch, has its advantages. MacLean wants to be clear: "It's not a good thing. Definitely not. It's like when Bart Simpson was put in special ed. He says, 'Wait, we're going to catch up to the other kids by going slower?' When you have trauma in your life, the world isn't polite enough to slow down for you. You work in syrup time for a long time, trying to catch up to the rest of the world. It's awful."
MacLean does acknowledge the experience had some positive outcomes. "I have a new understanding of the absurd. And of what's strange and exotic. The first thing that I saw on American TV when I came home straight from the asylum in India was Al Roker's gastric bypass surgery. And that's weirder than anything I saw in India. All of the sudden you're looking at the weatherman split open on TV. There's nothing more absurd or more exotic than that."
If asked, MacLean will tell people it took him a year to recover. That's not true. "There are still some things that I don't know. I still wrestle with anxiety, nightmares, I have insomnia, none of which I had before this experience. But other people don't want to hear that. They want to know that it's all better. And they don't understand how gradual this process has been for me.
"I still have issues and I still have some shitty days, but I'm so lucky to have the family that I have. I'm so lucky to have my wife [and daughter]. I'm so lucky to have the colleagues that I have, and my students. I can't say that I'm happy this happened but I can say that there are days when I'm happy."
David Stuart MacLean reads from and signs copies of The Answer to the Riddle is Me at 7 p.m. Friday. Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet. For information, call 713-523-0701 or visit brazosbookstore.com. Free.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Houston.