“I don’t remember any of what I’m about to tell you.” That jolting line begins Su Meck’s 2014 memoir, I Forgot to Remember. Meck suffered a rare case of complete retrograde amnesia, known as “Hollywood amnesia” because it occurs more in movies than in real life. She has absolutely no memories between her birth in 1965 and May 22, 1988. On that day she was playing with her son in their kitchen when a ceiling fan fell on her head.
Much of the book’s early section is reconstructed from hospital medical records. Having entered with partial paralysis, horrible headaches, and extremely limited vocabulary, Meck improved enough that doctors released her within three weeks, recording that her long-term memory “seems fairly unaffected.” Meck expresses outrage at her treatment, in her typically sarcastic, slang-filled style: “I was the goddamned valedictorian of head injury patients!” How could doctors have overlooked her total amnesia?
The accident created such a rupture in Meck’s identity that she refers to having lived two lives. Her techie husband, Jim, calls her “Su 2.0.” And, indeed, her personality seems to have undergone fundamental change: before, she was a rebel—a pot-smoking college dropout, married at 19; after, she was clean-living and compliant. Returned to a childhood state, she had to relearn everything. Mostly she watched others to see how she should behave. She became a pro at acting normally. Yet every few days “lightning strikes” left her unconscious on the floor. Her children had to take care of her as well as themselves.
It’s an unsettling book; perhaps the most disturbing element is Meck’s marriage to Jim. Clueless about finances and unsuspicious about Jim’s months-long work trips, Su was flabbergasted to learn he’d blown most of their money on strip clubs and affairs. He also has “sleep drunkenness,” which causes him to shout and hit people in his sleep. It seems something of a miracle that they’ve been married 30 years—and that Jim didn’t object to this memoir’s frank portrayal of his mistakes.
Meck rebuilt her confidence by taking classes at Montgomery College. After two decades of concealing the accident, trying desperately to be like everyone else, she found freedom in telling her story. She was approached by a Washington Post reporter (coauthor Daniel de Visé), and her experience became front-page news in 2011. Now a Smith College student, she continues sharing her life story to raise awareness of traumatic brain injury.
Solving the Riddle
October 17, 2002: David Stuart Maclean suddenly “wakes up” at a train station in India. He isn’t carrying a passport; he has no idea who he is or why he’s there. Station staff presume he is just another hippie westerner on drugs, or mentally ill.
Well, he was both—though not precisely. The Answer to the Riddle Is Me (2014) is Maclean’s quirky account of his temporary amnesia, triggered by anti-malarial drug Lariam. He’d been in India on a Fulbright fellowship, studying languages and planning an experimental novel. Like Meck, he had to rebuild his entire identity, learning that he perhaps hadn’t been the most pleasant person: a flippant, deadbeat joker, the kind of person who attended Halloween parties dressed only in saran wrap and aluminum foil. (“You’ve always been unique,” his father said diplomatically. His mother was blunter: “My son, the equal-opportunity jackass.”)
In other words, no one really took Maclean seriously. Yet that meant he could start from scratch, with no one expecting too much of him. Still, his kooky sense of humor is evident here, as in the unexpectedly hilarious scenes in an Indian mental hospital, where he hallucinates that Jim Henson is God and believes repeatedly cursing lentil pancakes—“F—k masala dosa”—will crack the riddle of existence. Bouncing back and forth between India, his family home in Ohio, college in New Mexico, and friends’ and girlfriends’ places in North Carolina and Goa, the memoir depicts, in astonishingly fresh language, a mosaic life as it starts to make sense. He also interweaves the fascinating history of malaria treatment, in sections echoing another great medical-mystery memoir, Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire.
S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep (2011) is a taut literary thriller about a woman who lost her memory in a car accident 20 years ago. Now, for Christine, each day is like starting over. Like the protagonist in the movie Memento, she must write every fact down before it disappears; like the heroine in Gone Girl, she doesn’t know if she can trust the most important person in her life: her own husband. A film version, due later this year, stars Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth.
Then there’s Jennie Shortridge’s novel, Love Water Memory (2013), in which a 39-year-old woman wakes up in San Francisco Bay, unaware of who she is or how she got there. It sounds deliciously like The Bourne Identity. Hollywood sure loves a memorable tale.