Review: The Answer to the Riddle Is Me. A Tale of Amnesia (David Stuart MacLean, 2014)
by Shane Granger
With information moving at the pace it does these days, picking up a book that is almost a decade old on a subject I thought I understood seemed a reasonable next step on my journey. I’ve only just started reading after a ten-year hiatus, so I have my learning wheels on at the moment. Mefloquine cannot be as bad as my first book? I’ve just finished The Tattooist of Auschwitz which goes into a firsthand account of Josef Mengele.
So, I’m reading about David’s journey, and I get sucker punched with the following paragraph.
I was not aware of this at all. I immediately check Wikipedia and the testing on prisoners was confirmed but no mention of Lariam. Oh, the ‘testing’ mentioned in the Wikipedia page was in relation to prisoners drinking faeces laden milkshakes so they could study hepatitis A. Charming stuff.
I reach out to #miltwitter and ask the question. Yes, I am told, we are aware of this one as Andrew Marriot mentions in it in his book. David responds.
We both agree the history of Lariam is fucked.
So, a book which should be as dead as the Mefloquine Action link in the Acknowledgements (interestingly that now points to a dentists!) is suddenly teaching me things about a disease I thought I knew all about.
This is how the book progresses. Almost in two parts.
One is David’s story of amnesia and how his life unravelled after losing his memory. At first, he thinks he is a drug addict, he likes the mental asylum he finds himself in and he takes up smoking. Different journey but I also see a lot of similarities too. I was struggling in the first few pages but when David describes meeting his dad my attention was arrested.
Because I do the same thing. If you have never had amnesia, I’m not sure you could really follow it all. Yet, David’s amnesia is different from mine. Like total.
Lariam doesn’t get a mention for what seems like ages. Then there it is. The second story. You may have had a reaction to one of your medications. Then Lariam comes into the frame. Then out of the blue Joliet. The story of amnesia interwoven with the horrors of Lariam. David likes movies. I’d point him to The Odd Angry Shot, an Australian Vietnam war movie. Instead of bullets or landmines David hits you with the odd Lariam fact.
Matchee gets a mention of course. A story I became very familiar with very early on. When I shared that with my co-parent in 2019 she emailed me our divorce papers. I have kept that email in my in-tray ever since as a reminder to myself about dealing with dark days. More military stuff. Then ‘out of the blue’, a suicide I was unaware of.
I reach out to #miltwitter again and I get a different response. I don’t think they have heard about this case. If Andrew Marriot hasn’t covered that one, I will.
Of course, there is more but enough spoilers.
David Stuart MacLean delivers a pretty good read if you want a primer on amnesia. Even if you haven’t experienced amnesia, you must get a sense of the disassociation involved. His stories are quite detailed and very personal, and his book shares a lot that would make any person uncomfortable.
If I have a criticism at all is that at the end, he think he goes too soft on Roche. Not quite off the hook but at peace with it all. I understand that too. We all must find our peace with this. Also, in fairness, David wrote this book back in 2012 and in the last decade a lot more has come to light.
It’s not the best book to read. In fact, it can be a bit confusing (and I have amnesia) but I think that is kind of the point. He sums it up for us all when he writes:
As I write this in September 2012, I am still afraid of lingering chemical instabilities; afraid of what might still be stuck in the wrinkles and folds of my gray (sic) matter; afraid of what might get dislodged, disrupting who knows what electrical signals; afraid of where I’ll wake up next.
The dread is always there, like some unseen Damocles sword forever in the wings. When he talks about sitting on the building wanting to throw himself off to his death, I got it straight away. I had a similar moment 15-years after Lariam. Except all I had to do was step into the current of Elliot Island and drift away to Fiji. Just letting go.
Suddenly, an old, tired book should deserve a second look. Especially if you are a veteran who has been exposed to Lariam or another anti-quinoline. It’s the Lariam story without the usual military triggers (there are some but if you are reading this book you would be aware of them).
I also think when the Lariam story fully unfolds, this book will be a crucial part of the history as well as not only one was it one of the first ‘lived experience’ stories fully documented but it also reminded us of where it all started.
In dank cells in a prison Illinois where prisoners were given shit laden milkshakes and we thought this was alright.
- The Answer to the Riddle is Me. A Tale of Amnesia. David Stuart MacLean. Short Books (2014).
- Joliet Correctional Center. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joliet_Correctional_Center (Accessed 30.01.23).
- If You Wake at Midnight. The Lariam Wonder Drug Scandal. Andrew Marriot. Austin Macauley (2022).
- The Odd Angry Shot. See: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0079652/ (1979).
- Kyle Brown (Canadian soldier). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyle_Brown_(Canadian_soldier) (Accessed 30.01.23).