Childhood amnesia haunts ‘History Lessons’

“There is properly no history, only biography,” wrote Emerson. “History must be this or it is nothing.” While Clifton Crais’ “History Lessons: A Memoir of Madness, Memory and The Brain” may be an autobiography, he otherwise fulfills Emerson with an extraordinarily wicked twist: When it comes to his own early years, he can’t remember much of anything.

Crais suffers from chronic childhood amnesia, in part the result of systematic neglect and trauma he endured growing up poor in New Orleans in the 1960s, an unwanted child. His mother tried to drown him in the bathtub when he was 3; she attempted suicide the following year, an event Crais witnessed and retains as a “flashbulb memory.”

An engaging writer, Crais explains neuroscientific advancements in an elegant style. Two structures in the brain, the amygdalae and hippocampi, “operate in tandem.” The first stores memory of “danger and fear”; the second “allow(s) us to fix experiences in time and place.” According to Crais, the kind of panic he experienced as a child produces a powerful biochemical surge that can cause the hippocampi to atrophy. Without this part of the brain “there can be no self, no society, no culture, no history telling.” Chronic childhood amnesia reduces “everything around that original experience [his mother’s suicide attempt] to gray haze, as if nothing else happened.” Further, he thinks his mother’s disorder “brought an end to storytelling … I forgot because so much was being forgotten.”

With his mother’s spiral into alcoholism and depression, Clifton spent his early years in humiliating squalor, “rodents held more or less in check by a couple of alley cats.” The youngster was often free to roam around New Orleans, which he describes as a “fabulously racially complicated city,” more like Cuba than a conventional American town.

Prompted by the wretched aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the author began a painstaking reconstruction of his family’s past to understand the problem he has with his memory. A professor of history at Emory, where he is director of the Institute of African Studies, Crais employed the methodologies of his profession to probe more than two centuries of his genealogy. He moved backward from Louisiana to France, then, at different points along the line, shifted side-to-side, examining the forever-mysterious cultural universe surrounding the Crescent City. In part, this was an exercise to test his family’s claim of “lost wealth and refined descent.” While his grandmother’s fanciful notions turn out to be mostly apocryphal, he credits her for saving his life following his mother’s breakdown, teaching him French and providing him with some stability.

“Everyone in my family is a little crazy,” writes Crais. He recalls an uncle who held “elaborate conversations with a Chihuahua that he kept in his sweater in the middle of the New Orleans summer.” Cecile, his mother’s sister, thought Gen. MacArthur was president; “Jesus,” she believed, “sat in some Uptown shotgun.” Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic in the 1950s, Cecile spent time in several mental institutions where she was “zapped with enough electricity to power a small town.”

Crais’ mother shared her sister’s mental disintegration. It’s tempting to assign all of this to some genetic strain of lunacy, but his research locates an additional source for the family’s grief: the Great Depression. With their grandmother’s fortunes already diminished in a disinheritance squabble, his mother’s generation was further reduced by the crash, and they soon fell on hard times. The psychic consequences of this economic collapse still haunt Crais and his siblings in the 21st century.

As a teenager in the 1970s, he began to break the destructive cycle with a serendipitous sojourn in Tunisia, where his older sister’s husband was stationed at the American Embassy. Here, he says, “I remember that feeling of becoming me.” He finds himself crawling around Africa’s Roman ruins, on the verge of his turning point: “In an oasis I climbed to the top of a palm and with a thousand drunken bees watched the sap flow from its exposed heart.” Similar poetic passages combine with Crais’ impish humor to make reading “History Lessons” a weirdly pleasant sensation.

He returns to America and, a few years later, secures government assistance to attend college — money his father, a marginal figure in his life, makes a futile effort to seize.

Amidst the book’s other lines of inquiry — interviews with reluctant relatives; personal engagements with psychotherapy; simply “walking up and down streets” — there looms, like a “raven cloud,” the most disturbing question of all: Can trauma physically affect the brain, in particular, the undeveloped brain of a child?

In “History Lessons,” there is no self-pity; no easy resolution; “no belief that we can discover an origin that explains everything else.” He worries that he will forget himself completely, but has to confront the paradox that he may have been “saved by amnesia,” a word he likens curiously to amnesty. “Forgetting is a necessary condition of living,” he concedes, although, by serving history and the arts, “we continue living in the telling.”

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