After a Stroke at Age 33, This Memoir’s Author Wrote Herself Back to Life

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Amber Vittoria

TELL ME EVERYTHING YOU DON’T REMEMBER
The Stroke That Changed My Life
By Christine Hyung-Oak Lee
262 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $27.99.

“Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember” is Christine Hyung-Oak Lee’s memoir of rebuilding her mind and her life after a stroke destroyed her short-term memory, at the age of 33 — when she became, as she puts it, “unstuck in time.”

Lee’s recovery begins in a curious state of complete presence. “There was no future,” Lee tells us. “There was no past.” Faced with blankness, she began to write down the details of her stay in the hospital, none of which she could remember for more than a few minutes at a time. The occupation of writing preserved a record of her daily life and became the engine of her recovery. “I decided to regrow my brain to become a stronger writer,” she tells us. “This gave me a sense of purpose in my healing, and a target against which to measure.” The scattered notes compiled in her journal became pieces of a puzzle that, when put together, gave her mind a foundation on which to rebuild itself.

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Recovery from illness and trauma, like the narrative, is nonlinear. It is achieved gradually, through hard work and periods of necessary rest and what feels like interminable boredom. Lee discusses what it means to be “well” — the point at which you can understand yourself recovered, and how that overlaps (or doesn’t) with the perceptions of loved ones, friends and colleagues.

For Lee, the first 80 percent of recovery — which lasted about 18 months — was difficult, but it was also dramatic. The last 20 percent, which took much longer, was slower, more frustrating and largely unsupported. This is the period when recovering people are assumed to be well because they can function in a way that appears to be normal, though for Lee it was anything but. “Mediocre me,” she calls her semi-recovered self, a woman with none of the mental mastery that characterized her earlier life.

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Lee explains the various types of memory and how they function, using episodes from throughout her life as examples. This is useful but not always affecting, especially when she returns to the same anecdote for a second or third time, such as the days in preschool she spent locked in a bathroom stall. The book’s chronological dissonance is a conscious tribute to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” and presumably intended to mimic the dissociative state of Lee’s mind as it knit itself back together — a process that was necessarily confusing for her, but needn’t have been for the reader.

It is difficult to separate admiration for what Lee has achieved in writing this book from evaluation of the resulting product, which is honest and insightful but feels haphazard. “Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember” seems unfinished, as if pieces have yet to be written to complete its translation from blog to book. Lee writes primarily in short, idiomatic sentences and paragraphs whose plainness appears to be designed to emphasize the drama of events. This reads cleanly on the internet (the book grew out of a BuzzFeed essay that went viral), but it doesn’t lend stamina to a 250-page narrative. Occasionally Lee veers into poetic territory, and her voice in these passages is more vibrant: “I thought of picking my fingers I thought of cutting myself I thought of grapevines, perfect in lines.”

The Lee who began an M.F.A. program before her stroke is not the same person who completes her thesis nearly two years after — or, for that matter, the person who wrote this book. “A part of my brain will be dead forever,” she says, but by telling and retelling the story of her recovery, she mended her mind, and wrote herself back into existence.

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