For months at least, if not years, I have fantasized about spend a whole rainy day inside, doing nothing but reading a book. The problem with doing that is that I always get distracted by some sort of chore, or, if we are out of town, I think I should be out doing something. Through a perfect confluence of events, I found myself on this rainy day with no pending chores and no need to go out into the town where I have lived for 23 years. I could sit around reading a book all day. Fortunately, Louisa and I stopped by Malaprop’s yesterday so that I could pick up The Answer to the Riddle is Me by David Stuart MacLean.
David and I went to the same college and were friendly, but not close in any real way. It’s an indictment of my personality that this could be said of a lot of the people I went to school with. I was affable enough, but rarely very close. I could always find one reason or another to keep my distance. With David it was a bit more difficult because he was smart and funny in a way that seemed cool. But he frustrated me because, even though it seemed like there was more to him than that, all I got was smart and funny.
That’s probably about all I gave out too. Not necessarily just to David, but to everybody. I have had, it has rightly been noted, some trouble with intimate relationships. That he used similar tactics as mine to keep people at arms length probably made me more suspicious of David MacLean than I was of some other folks. In any event, we did not keep in touch after college, so it was only because I had gone to work for our alma mater that I got word through the grapevine that “something had happened to David in India.”
That something, as he explains in the book, was a severe episode of amnesia accompanied with hallucinations that were brought on by the anti-malarial drug Lariam. I was relieved to find that I was not the only one who, upon hearing the story for the first time, thought “bullshit.” Of course I feel guilty now for thinking that, but as he acknowledges in the book, David is — or was — the kind of guy who may very well have meant to do such a thing. It is not beyond imagining that the David MacLean with whom I ate bologna sandwiches on the Blue Ridge Parkway would gin up such a thing intentionally or as a result of recreational drug use.
Reading more, I was fascinated by David’s mingled fascination and unease with the person he was learning he had been. Not everyone is given the opportunity to step outside of themselves and view their lives from a different vantage point. I’m not sure those who do get that opportunity necessarily want or are pleased by the experience. It’s my belief that this kind of journey can takes supernatural help to survive, much less profit from.
Gods, angels, puppeteers, and super heroes all show up as guideposts or touchstones in David’s story, but his recounting of unearned kindnesses from ordinary people, kindnesses that cannot possibly be repaid, begin to tell the story of how David may have been transformed by this experience. Having been psychically ripped apart by the side effect of an anti-malarial drug left him without the wit and jackassery that hid the needy and, to David, shameful parts.
I’m all for wit, jackassery, food, sex, alcohol or whatever else will provide cover for my shameful parts as long as that cover works. The problem is when the cover fails. Maybe for some people the cover never does fail, or else they never see the need for it in the first place. It failed over the course of several forgotten days for David, more slowly for me. Getting the cover back on is not an option, and I’m pretty sure I would not take the option if it were.
Going crazy, according to David MacLean, is not as bad as fearing that you’re going crazy. The fearing is full of self-analyzing “what ifs?” Denying it all with a constant “I’m fine” may be even worse. The only advantage peeling back the cover has is the opportunity to see what’s inside. Certainly there is a lifetime’s worth of detritus: old hurts, regrets, guilty pleasures that rotted into plain old guilt. But I’m in there too. Much to my surprise, I’ve found it’s totally worth digging through all that crap to find me. It’s not clear that David would say he’s glad he lost his mind in Hyderabad, India, but it is obvious that the experience was not wasted on him. I’m grateful for that.