Friday, March 31, 2017

Tell Me Everything You Don't Remember

Tell Me Everything You Don't Remember: The Stroke That Changed My Life
Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

   Christine Lee was an atypical stroke patient, back in the first week of 2007, mainly because she was only thirty-three years old. In fact, it took four days for the hospital to decide it was a stroke, and not some kind of inflammation or tumor. The stroke affected her left anterior thalamus, ruining her ability to hold events in memory, and to retrieve anything she consciously knew. Her memoir, eight years in the writing, describes how her memory, and her mind, and ultimately her life, were rebuilt from the ground up.

   The plasticity of Lee's brain, building new connections around the damaged area, was something of a surprise in its own right. She likens it to the improvised routes around the damaged parts of California interstate highways, when earthquakes or explosions have knocked out the main thoroughfare. Her youth was almost certainly an advantage in that respect; she was also extremely determined. As the U.S. born child of Korean immigrants, she was brought up to be tough, to work hard and bear pain without complaining.

   This was obviously all to the good in many areas of life. She did get good grades and a good education. But it has its heart-breaking aspects as well, as when family hikes in the San Gabriel Mountains meant pain and shortness of breath, to the point of nausea. Her parents were training their kids to survive the kind of hardships they had faced. They were doing the best they knew how, but Lee's difficulty had a physical cause that went undiagnosed and untreated: she had a hole in her heart, known as patent foramen ovale. Until six months after her stroke, when it was repaired, the PFO caused some of her blood to leave her heart without having visited her lungs to pick up oxygen.

   Lee's book has a quality of being unstuck in time, in a conscious reference to Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, which she happened to have just started reading at the time of her stroke. It's an effective device, because it refers both to the wanderings of memory, and to the trauma that lies behind them. Vonnegut had to fictionalize his experience in the fire-bombing of Dresden to write about it; he could make Billy Pilgrim more innocent than he was when he was writing. Lee's character and narrator are both herself. She's reconstructing her damaged self from contemporary notebooks–she kept the procedural memory of how to write, even while her memory for events lasted less than ten minutes.

   It turns out that procedural memory will take you an awfully long way, if you're keeping quiet about your deficits, or have run out of people willing to hear about them. Lee could drive, but had to trust her navigation to intuition. She could carry on conversations, but her accustomed emotional control was shattered; she was shocked to find herself melting down at work. It took more than a year for her to be able to cook, or to order anything but a hamburger in a restaurant, because those things require at least a few minutes worth of memory.

   This book will interest the brain-science and stroke-affected communities, but I can't necessarily recommend it to all: it's just too sad. Lee skillfully tells us about all the layers of sadness, restlessness, depression, and rage she experienced, and I found it tough going. I wish her the best.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Erik Larson (2003, Vintage)

     The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, otherwise known as the Chicago World's Fair, was an undertaking of colossal scale, covering a square mile of lakeside with all manner of exotic attractions and novelties, and beautiful white buildings that rose from the mud in just a couple of years. Erik Larson's history of its conception and construction pulls together all kinds of things we now take for granted, from skyscrapers to Shredded Wheat. Larson also weaves in a contemporary true-crime story about a man whose architectural ambitions are considerably less exalted.

     In 1890, Congress awarded Chicago the right to celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus's voyage, which left only three years for a tremendous feat of planning and building. Chicago architect Daniel Hudson Burnham was an inspired choice to lead the effort. Not only was he a talented architect in his own right, he had the powers of leadership and persuasion he would need to pull together such other architectural lights as Charles McKim, Augustus St. Gaudens, and Frederick Law Olmstead.

     The fair's construction faced "a legion of obstacles, any one of which could have–should have–killed it long before Opening Day." Maddening delays in choosing a site wiped out most of the first year; a worldwide financial panic and unexpected weather exacerbated the ordinary difficulties that come with any project, let alone one that proposes to entertain 700,000 people in a single day, as the fair did at its peak. 'Entertain' might be too strong a word for the fair itself: Burnham intended to awe visitors with the beauty and grandeur of the buildings, which were all painted white. Entertainment, as such, was more likely to be found at neighboring sideshows, such as Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, the belly dancers in the Egyptian village, and the world's largest Ferris wheel, at 264 feet high. (That it was also the world's first Ferris wheel makes that figure even more impressive.)

     The 'Devil' in Larson's title was a con man turned murderer named H. H. Holmes, though he took other names any time it suited his purposes. A mile or so from the site of the fair, he built a large, dark building with offices and apartments over street-level storefronts. With its soundproof rooms and a coffin-shaped kiln, the setup was just right for making young women disappear, and disposing of their bodies. He did this sometimes for profit, selling the skeletons as medical specimens, and sometimes for convenience: he possessed a dangerous charisma that led him to make promises to the young women in his thrall. When he reached a stage where his victim started to expect him to follow through, off they went. Larson is scrupulous to give us only what is known to be fact, but some of the gaps tell their own story.

    The Columbian Exposition lasted only six months, through the summer of 1893. The labor boom that had built it gave way to unemployment and homelessness in the following year, and arson took down many of the most magnificent structures. Like a magic kingdom, the White City was gone almost as quickly as it had come. It sounds like a fairy tale, in a way, but I trust Larson: it's all true.

Any Good Books
March 2017