HISTORY LESSONS by Clifton Crais


A Memoir of Madness, Memory, and the Brain
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A historian sets out to discover his own past.

Crais (History and African Studies/Emory University; co-editor: Poverty, War, and Violence in South Africa, 2011, etc.) suffers from chronic childhood amnesia, a condition that leaves him bereft of memories of his youngest years. “I am a contradiction,” he writes. “I am a historian who can’t remember.” This form of amnesia results from early childhood trauma—in the author’s case, his mother’s attempt to drown him in a bathtub when he was 3 after her husband abandoned her and their five children; and her attempted suicide a few years later. These two violent episodes punctuated a devastating youth. Crais lived for years with his alcoholic mother in a roach-infested apartment, hungry and neglected; from time to time, he was shunted among relatives. In his attempt to revive that period, the author decided to apply a historian’s methodology, interviewing his mother and sisters, examining photographs and public records, and visiting old neighborhoods. What he found unnerved him. “The past is a mess,” he writes, “a bloody terrible mess of infinite horror”: mental illness, suicide, alcoholism and poverty. He felt “dirty,” he admits, “not only from prying into the lives of others but by association—too close to a chasm of tragedies from which I want to escape but seem instead to be falling into.” Along with historical research, Crais turned to neuroscience to help him understand his own identity. “Trauma obliterates time,” he writes. “Trauma trips up the elaborate choreography of being….” Sadly Crais’ siblings have become casualties of the family’s history, living “in despair, with broken marriages, depression, abusive relationships, and substance abuse.” Yet the author has managed not only to survive, but to thrive.

This memoir of anguish and struggle is a story of remarkable strength and unlikely, inexplicable resilience.

Pub Date: May 1st, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-4683-0368-1
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Overlook
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2014


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