Archives for : David MacLean

How Do You Overcome Amnesia?


To some extent, all memoirs are about self-discovery.

But David Stuart MacLean’s memoir, “The Answer to the Riddle is Me,” is about the ultimate self-discovery: Trying to find out who you are after amnesia.

In 2002, MacLean found himself a blank slate, wide awake on a train platform in India. After a short time in a psych ward, MacLean’s world returned slowly and he learned that his amnesia had been a side effect of an anti-malaria drug called Lariam. The book documents MacLean’s winding road to rediscover — and reshape — himself.

In this inaugural edition of The Big Questions Podcast, part of the Sun-Times Media Local’s new podcast network, MacLean talks about how memory forms our sense of self, how he lives in fear of amnesia recurring and what memories have shaped him since his time in India. Below is an excerpt of our talk, but the entire conversation can be downloaded via iTunes, SoundCloud or streamed via YouTube.

MacLean opens his national book tour with a 7 p.m. reading tonight (Tuesday, January 14) at The Book Stall in Winnetka.

Q: How do you explain to people what amnesia feels like?

MacLean: Well, what you do is you end up taking whatever is at hand. So the first moment … I just opened my eyes and that train station is seared onto me. And that moment I remember really well – because the first moment of waking up without any memory, I was kind of fine. I was looking around. But once I realized: but what was I going to do next? [That] is when I freaked out, is when I was terrified.

And then my mind started racing, and a tourist police officer came up to help me. And he said to me: “We get people like you all the time – drug addicts like you all the time.” And as soon as he told me that, I was fine. So I constructed in my head a narrative of being a drug addict. I invented this woman, Christina, in my head, a very ugly red-headed woman with nickel-size freckles who I would do drugs with all the time in India. She and I would run around India doing drugs. Totally not true. Totally fabricated.

Q: That is the mind trying to feel out its own narrative, right?

MacLean: Exactly, yeah. The one thing the mind balks at is not having context. And so it will try using whatever materials it has to create that context and reassert the ego in the face of the chaos in the world.

Q: But did you truly have no sense of history? Like no childhood memories? 

MacLean: It’s difficult because there are different kinds of amnesia. It clearly didn’t affect my language sense. To be honest, there were spasms. And there would be times when I would remember stuff. And times when I didn’t; times when I would be totally confused again; times when I did, it was like this fugue state – just thrashing … I sort of let the confusion in the book stay there. That’s going to drive a lot of people crazy. But like, well good. It drove me crazy.

Q: You start to come back to yourself when you first see your parents. So what was it about that trigger as they visited you in the psych ward in India?

MacLean: Something clicked, and I saw them and I saw the way they looked at me. And it located me in a way; and it found me. And not everything was there. And at least I have the shape of what I was trying to fill. I still thought I was a drug addict. I kept apologizing to them for being a terrible, horrible drug addict that destroyed their lives which they thought was kind of funny.

Q: Then, they didn’t believe it?

MacLean: Right. Not at all. They were like, “David, you’re a dummy. Come on.” It’s good that I have parents with a good sense of humor because through this, it has not been easy.

Q: Do you still have Lariam in your brain? Is this a repeatable injury?

MacLean: I’m terrified of it all the time … It’s that feeling of at any moment, a molecule could fall out of place – and I’m a different person. That’s a terrifying thing to live with.

This excerpt was edited for length and context. To hear the entire conversation downloaded on iTunes,  at SoundCloud or stream on YouTube.