Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2014. 292 pp.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2014. 292 pages.

In October 2002, David Stuart MacLean found himself in a train station in Hyderabad, India without knowing how he’d gotten there.  He didn’t recognize his surroundings, and even more frightening, he didn’t recognize himself.  A police officer tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he could help, and all MacLean could manage to say was, “I have no idea who I am.”

At first, based on what the police officer and others told him, plus the New Mexico driver’s license in his pocket, MacLean believed he was an American who’d come to India to use drugs, had a bad trip, and was left now, perhaps, with brain damage of some sort. Over time, however, and with the help of his parents who came to India to take him home, he learned that he was in fact a Fulbright Scholar who, like many world travelers, Peace Corps volunteers, and U.S. military personnel, had been prescribed the popular and dangerous anti-malarial drug Lariam.

The Answer to the Riddle is Me describes Lariam and its potential side effects in great, though comprehensible, detail. The drug’s effectiveness in staving off malaria is unquestionable, but its side effects often mimic the symptoms of schizophrenia, including major memory loss, hallucinations, seizures, and changes in personality. MacLean experiences many of these side effects over the course of the next several years, though with time, his past and his present grow clearer to him.

As a memoir of amnesia, MacLean’s book seems rather like a paradox, a tale told from memory by a man who can’t remember much of anything. Really, though, it’s a memoir of discovery, or re-discovery, since re-discovery is what’s required if he is to reclaim his life.

Indeed, by losing his memory, MacLean has been granted an opportunity that (thankfully) most of us will never have: He gets to re-learn who he is.

The most startling and poignant moments of the book come when he discovers aspects of his past self that he doesn’t like. Through photos and stories told to him by family members and friends, he learns that he wasn’t always as kind as he could have been to the women in his life, that he was a known prankster and sometimes liar. Even when he tells his friends via email of his recent ordeal and apologizes to them for not remembering who they are, many of them assume that he’s making the whole thing up, that it’s all a part of some elaborate ruse, and that it would be just like him to do such a thing and then to laugh at them about it. Was he the man, he often wonders, that he would want himself to be?

More than once, while telling his story to friends or therapists, he’s moved to tears, and this makes sense. Putting one’s self back together is difficult, and we see this difficulty as MacLean learns the art of feigning recognition upon entering familiar homes and bars at which he had once been a regular. We see it when he looks at old photos of himself and is so uncertain that the person he’s seeing is him that he has to ask others to confirm his identity. We see it when he can scarcely believe that he was the man that he once, well, was.

The book incorporates a political message, too, about the dangers of Lariam and about a governmental system that approved the drug so easily without a clear understanding of its devastating side effects. It even contains the text of the heart-rending suicide note of a young man prescribed Lariam a few years before who says, among other things, that “[n]o one could live with how I am feeling now.” But it resonates most powerfully when it’s at its most personal, when it describes MacLean’s harrowing, sad, and often hopeful experiences in wondrous and honest detail.

Thankfully, MacLean makes it through, even if seizures and occasional hallucinations haunt him for years afterward, and he leaves readers wondering what might happen if they too could see themselves from far away and through a fresh set of eyes. This is a powerful story, and it asks powerful questions. The Answer to the Riddle is Me leaves us wondering whether, if given the chance to rediscover ourselves, we’d like everything we found.

Will Donnelly