December 11, 2013

Reassembling pieces of a missing life

By David Stuart MacLean
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When David MacLean woke up on a train platform in India, he had no idea who he was or why he was there. “It was darkness, darkness, darkness, then snap. Me. Now awake,” he writes.

MacLean was hospitalized with severe hallucinations and near total amnesia. Officials assumed he was a foreigner who had taken too many drugs. The truth was that he was suffering from a reaction to an anti-malarial drug called Lariam, commonly used by soldiers and travelers and approved by the Federal Drug Administration after a questionable trial.

A writer, MacLean had traveled to India as a Fulbright Scholar to study local speech patterns for his novel. His parents came from Ohio after he was hospitalized. While he didn’t remember them, he started recognizing things about them: The way his father cried, the way his mother soothed him by pushing her thumb between his eyebrows: “I still didn’t have my memory, but I now had an outline of myself, like a tin form waiting for batter.”

The drug settled into MacLean’s brain and continued altering his chemistry for 10 years. He drank too much, smoked too much and considered suicide more than once.

“Life felt like a too-long race, all spent running in wet concrete, each year a little deeper in: toes, knees, pelvis, chest, neck, death,” he writes.

The Answer to the Riddle Is Me is a spare and unflinching memoir that takes the reader along on MacLean’s messy, one-step-forward, two-steps-back recovery. Based on an essay MacLean wrote for NPR’s “This American Life,” it is haunting on two fronts: His brutally honest recounting of his journey to the brink of suicide and back, and the questions he raises about the use of Lariam in the U.S. military despite its record of serious side effects. (Lariam is no longer the main anti-malarial drug, but it is still being given to some soldiers in Afghanistan. An Army epidemiologist called it the “Agent Orange of our generation” during testimony before a Senate subcommittee in 2012.)

Maclean may never be the same as he was before waking up on that train platform, but 10 years out, he is married and is an award-winning author. He still has days when, he writes, “[I]t seems irresponsible that I’m allowed to cross the street by myself. But this, in comparison to what I’ve been through, is everyday crazy, and everyday crazy is something I can handle.”

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The Answer to the Riddle Is Me

The Answer to the Riddle Is Me

By David Stuart MacLean
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN 9780547519272

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