Read The Man Without a Shadow Online
Authors: Joyce Carol Oates
TO MY HUSBAND CHARLIE GROSS,
MY FIRST READER
The annihilation is not the terror.
The journey is the terror.
NOTES ON AMNESIA: PROJECT “E.H.” (1965â1996)
She meets him, she falls in love. He forgets her.
She meets him, she falls in love. He forgets her.
She meets him, she falls in love. He forgets her.
At last she says good-bye to him, thirty-one years after they've first met. On his deathbed, he has forgotten her.
HE IS STANDING
on a plank bridge in a low-lying marshy place with his feet just slightly apart and firmly on his heels to brace himself against a sudden gust of wind.
He is standing on a plank bridge in this place that is new to him and wondrous in beauty. He knows he must brace himself, he grips the railing with both hands, tight.
In this place new to him and wondrous in beauty yet he is fearful of turning to see, in the shallow stream flowing beneath the bridge, behind his back, the drowned girl.
. . .
naked, about eleven years old, a child. Eyes open and sightless, shimmering in water. Rippling-water, that makes it seem that the
girl's face is shuddering. Her slender white body, long white tremulous legs and bare feet. Splotches of sunshine, “water-skaters” magnified in shadow on the girl's face.
SHE WILL CONFIDE
in no one: “On his deathbed, he didn't recognize me.”
She will confide in no one: “On his deathbed, he didn't recognize me but he spoke eagerly to me as he'd always done, as if I were the one bringing him hopeââHel-
BRAVELY AND VERY
publicly she will acknowledgeâ
He is my life. Without E.H., my life would have been to no purpose.
All that I have achieved as a scientist, the reason you have summoned me here to honor me this evening, is a consequence of E.H. in my life.
I am speaking the frankest truth as a scientist and as a woman.
She speaks passionately, yet haltingly. She seems to be catching at her breath, no longer reading from her prepared speech but staring out into the audience with moist eyesâblinded by lights, puzzled and blinking, she can't see individual faces and so might imagine his face among them.
In his name, I accept this great honor. In memory of Elihu Hoopes.
At last to the vast relief of the audience the speech given by this year's recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Psychological Association has ended. Applause is quick and scattered through the large amphitheater like small flags flapping in a weak, wayward wind. And then, as the recipient turns from the podium, uncertain, confusedâin belated sympathy the applause gathers and builds into a wave, very loud, thunderous.
She is startled. Almost for a moment she is frightened.
Are they mocking her? Do theyâ
Stepping blindly away from the podium she stumbles. She has left behind the heavy and unwieldy eighteen-inch cut-crystal trophy in the shape of a pyramid, engraved with her name. Quickly a young person comes to take the trophy for her, and to steady her.
“Professor Sharpe! Watch that step.”
Here is the first surprise: Elihu Hoopes greets Margot Sharpe with such eager warmth, it's as if he has known her for years. As if there is a profound emotional attachment between them.
The second surprise: Elihu Hoopes himself, who is nothing like Margot Sharpe has expected.
It is 9:07
., October 17, 1965. The single defining moment of Margot Sharpe's life as it will be the single defining moment of Margot Sharpe's career.
Purely coincidentally it is the eve of Margot Sharpe's twenty-fourth birthdayâ(about which no one here in Darven Park, Pennsylvania, knows, for Margot has uprooted her midwestern life and cast it among strangers)âwhen she is introduced by Professor Milton Ferris to the amnesiac patient Elihu Hoopes as a student in Professor Ferris's neuropsychology laboratory at the university. Margot is the youngest and most recent addition to the renowned “memory” laboratory; she has been accepted by Ferris as a first-year graduate student, out of numerous applicants, and she is dry-mouthed with anticipation. For weeks, she has been reading material pertinent to
Yet, the amnesiac E.H. is so friendly, and so gentlemanly, Margot feels comforted at once.
The man is unexpectedly tallâat least six feet two. He is
straight-backed, vigorous. His skin exudes a warm glow and his eyes appear to be normal though Margot knows that the vision in his left eye is very poor. He is not at all the impaired individual Margot has expected to meet, who had to relearn a number of basic physical skills since the devastating injury to his brain just fifteen months before, when he was thirty-seven.
Margot thinks that E.H. emanates an air of manly
âthat mysterious quality to which we respond instinctively without being able to explain. He is even well dressed, preppy-style, in clean khakis, a long-sleeved linen shirt, oxblood moccasins with patterned cotton socksâin contrast to other patients at the Institute whom Margot has glimpsed lolling about in hospital gowns or rumpled civilian wear. She has been told that E.H. is a descendant of an old, distinguished Philadelphia family named Hoopes, onetime Quakers who were central to the Underground Railway in the years preceding the Civil War; E.H. has a large, extended family in the area, but no wife, children, parents.
Elihu Hoopes is something of an artist, Margot has learned. He has sketchbooks, he keeps a journal. In his former lifetime he'd been a partner in a family-owned investment firm in Philadelphia but before that he'd been a student at Union Theological Seminary and a civil rights activist and supporter. Is it strange that Elihu Hoopes is unmarried, at nearly forty? Margot wonders if this somewhat patrician individual has had a history of relationships with women in which the women were found wanting, and cast asideânever guessing that his time for love, marriage, fathering children would come so abruptly to an end.
Camping alone on an island in Lake George, New York, the previous summer, E.H. was infected by a particularly virulent strain of herpes simplex encephalitis, that usually manifests itself as a cold sore on a lip, and fades within a few days; in E.H.'s case,
the viral infection traveled along his optic nerve and into his brain, resulting in a prolonged high fever that ravaged his memory.
Unfortunately E.H. lingered too long before calling for help. Like a morbidly curious scientist he'd recorded his temperature in a notebook, in pencilâ(the highest recorded reading was 103.1 degrees F)âbefore he'd collapsed.
This was ironic: a macho self-destructiveness. Like the premature death of the painter George Bellows who'd been reluctant to leave his studio to get help, though stricken by appendicitis.
In the vast Adirondack region there'd been no first-rate hospital, no adequate medical treatment for such a rare and catastrophic infection. By the time the delirious and convulsing man had been brought by ambulance to the Albany Medical Center Hospital where emergency surgery was performed to reduce the swelling in his brain it was already too late. Something essential had been destroyed in his brain, and the damage appears to be irreversible. (It is Milton Ferris's hypothesis that the damaged region is the small seahorse-shaped structure called the hippocampus, located just above the brain stem and contiguous with the cerebral cortex, about which not much is yet known, but which seems to be essential for the consolidation and storage of memory.) And so, E.H. can form no new memories, and his memories of the past are erratic and uncertain; in clinical terms E.H. suffers from partial retrograde amnesia, and total anterograde amnesia. Though he continues to test high on standardized I.Q. tests, and despite his seemingly normal appearance and manner, E.H. is incapable of “remembering” new information for more than seventy seconds; often, it is less than seventy seconds.
Seventy seconds! A nightmare to contemplate.
The only consolation, Margot thinks, is that E.H. is a highly congenial person, and seems to thrive upon the attentions of
strangers. The nature of his affliction at least precludes mental anguishâ(so Margot thinks). His memories of the distant past are sometimes vividly detailed and oneiric; more recent memories (for approximately eighteen months preceding his illness) are likely to be cloudy and indistinct; both have been described as “mildly dissociative”âas if belonging to another person, not E.H. The subject is susceptible to moods, but a very limited range of moods; his affect has flattened, as a caricature is a flattened portrait of the complexity of human personality.
(Uncannily, E.H. will always recall events out of his past in the same way, using the same vocabulary; but he is never altogether certain if he is remembering correctly, even when external verification confirms that he is remembering correctly.)
Though E.H. doesn't consistently remember certain of his relatives (whose faces are altering with time), he can identify the faces of famous people in photographs (if they predate his illness). At times, he demonstrates a remarkable,
like memory for recitations: statistics, historical dates, song lyrics, comic-strip characters and film dialogue (he is said to have memorized the entirety of the silent film
), passages from poems memorized in school (Whitman's “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd” is his favorite) and from revered American speeches (Abraham Lincoln's
Franklin Delano Roosevelt's
The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s
I Have a Dream
). He retains curiosity for “news”âwatches TV news, each day reads at least two newspapers including the
New York Times
âwithout the ability to remember any of it. Each day he completes the
New York Times
crossword puzzle as (his family has attested) he'd only occasionally taken time to complete the puzzle before his illness. (“Eli didn't have that kind of time to waste.”)
Without seeming to think at all E.H. can recite multiplication tables, solve algebra problems without using a pencil, add up lengthy columns of numbers. It isn't a surprise to learn that “Elihu Hoopes” had been a successful businessman in a highly competitive field.
Margot thinks that it is difficult to feel for this healthy-seeming man the visceral pity one might feel for a (visibly) handicapped person, for E.H.'s loss is far more subtle. In fact, though E.H. has been told repeatedly that he has a severe neurological deficit, it doesn't seem that he quite understands that there is anything significant wrong with himâwhy he feels compelled to keep a notebook, for instance, as he'd begun to do after his illness.
Already Margot Sharpe has begun to keep a notebook herself. This will be a quasi-private document, primarily scientific, but partially a diary and journal, stimulated by her participation in Milton Ferris's memory lab; through her career she will draw upon the material of the notebook, or rather notebooks, for her scientific papers and publications. “Notes on Amnesia: Project E.H.” will run into many notebooks to be eventually transcribed into a computer file to be continued to the very day of E.H.'s death (November 26, 1996) and beyond charting the fate of the amnesiac's posthumous brain after it has been removedâvery carefully!âfrom its skull.
But on this morning in October 1965 in the University Neurological Institute at Darven Park, Pennsylvania, all of Margot Sharpe's life as a scientist lies before her. Introduced to “E.H.” she is dry-mouthed and tremulous as one who has been brought to the edge of a precipice to see a sight that dazzles her eyes.
Will my life begin, at last? My true life.
IN SCIENCE IT
is understood that there are
matters, and there are
So too in the matter of lives.
For it is a fact not generally, not publicly acknowledged: we have lives that are
and we have lives that are
Perhaps it is rare that an individual discovers his
at any age. Perhaps it is usually the case that an individual lives
through an entire life. In terms of its consequence to what is called society or posterity, the
is scarcely more than an addition of zeroes.
This is not to suggest that an
is equivalent to a
. Such lives may be enjoyable, and fulfilling: we all want to love and to be loved and within our families, and within a small circle of friends, we may feel ourselves cherished, thus exalted. But such lives pass away leaving the larger world untouched. There is scarcely a ripple, there is no shadow. There will be no memory of the merely
Margot Sharpe has come from a family of
. This family, in semi-rural north-central Ojibway County, Michigan, in a region of
. Yet already as a child of twelve she'd determined that she would not live so uncalculated a life as the lives of those who surrounded her and her way of discovering her
would be through leaving her hometown Orion Falls, and her family, as soon as that was possible.