the healing muse

Volume 11, 2011

Undercover Agent

Annita Sawyer

            In 1960, as I approached seventeen-years-old, I began to act seriously depressed and suicidal. Over the next six years, I was placed in one hospital and then another. I’ve since become a clinical psychologist. This is part of a memoir from that period.

April 1967
            One morning, a few months into college, I was on my way to the library, when I stopped for a moment on the sidewalk at Broadway and 116th Street, just outside the large iron gates that marked the entrance to the Columbia College campus. Blossoming fruit trees perfumed the air; their scattered white petals made lacy patterns on the ground. The whole area bustled with chattering students and rattling cars rushing past each other up and down the hill. Despite the morning’s chill, my blouse felt warm from nervous sweat. I shifted my stack of books and freed a hand to tuck a loose wisp of hair behind my ear. I wanted to compose myself, to make sure that I looked normal.
            I noticed an attractive, curly haired girl walking toward me.
            “Hey, Annita, what are you doing here?” She was smiling. She sounded enthusiastic.
            “Hi!” I replied with a big grin. I scanned her face and searched my brain for any indication that I’d seen her before, while I prayed for divine intervention and hoped that my pause wasn’t lasting too long. Dear God, who is she?
            “What have you been up to?” I ventured. By now I was feeling disembodied, like a robot reciting a script. But I’d won acclaim for my acting in high school, so I pulled myself together and focused on my part. I took a deep breath—no sweat stink yet—and grinned again.
            She dived into a report on her recent activities. She shared an apartment in the Village and dated musicians and MBAs, but there was no one special yet. After college she had taken a year off and lived in France. Now she worked in a bank downtown at a job she didn’t like. She was there to check out the law school. She paused for a moment. “You?”
            “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?” I responded as if I were answering her question, as if we were old friends. She returned to talking about herself, and whenever she looked for something from me I produced sympathetic phrases that encouraged her to continue. “Yeah? . . . No kidding . . . He didn’t! . . . ” What looked like a conversation might have qualified, in essence, as a monologue.
            Like any experienced undercover agent, I was buying time while I gathered strategic information. My concealed identity: former mental patient, returned to the world now six years out of step, with almost no memory of life outside an institution. My public persona was congenial local college student—I had just started at Columbia’s School of General Studies. I matched my responses to my friend’s emotional tone as I noted her age, her dress, and her choice of words. She looked as if she was about my age. I was almost twenty-four, but I looked younger, which meant age alone wasn’t enough. She wore an ironed green corduroy skirt with a clean white cotton blouse and a pretty sweater. Her speech flowed easily and had a nice rhythm. She was lively. No tics, dishevelment, or ghostlike transparency, which would have suggested someone from the hospital. Most likely she had gone to my high school.
            Confessing my ignorance was not an option. If I told someone I had lost most of my memory, I would have to explain why. If I said it was due to loads of shock treatments in a mental hospital, the person likely would run as fast as possible in the other direction. No one would choose to destroy her social acceptability with psychiatric revelations if she could avoid it. And people who had known me before the hospital couldn’t believe I had forgotten so much—especially who they were.
            I had seen the dismay on faces of those I told before I knew better. Awkward and fumbling, thinking I had to be honest, I had explained that I had no awareness at all of experiences they were certain we’d shared. I figured my classmates knew about my hospitalization, since I had left school suddenly and never returned. Certainly Sara and Sue, my best friends, knew. And kids talked—nothing in high school stayed secret for long.
            A few of my friends had looked particularly alarmed, angry even. They tried not to show they were upset with me, but their skin flushed and their eyes bugged out. My guess was that they thought I didn’t consider them important enough to remember. Others might have worried I was truly insane, although no one said anything directly. They seemed really nervous around me—stammering, fidgeting, beating around the bush. And how could I blame them? In those encounters I stammered as badly, if not worse, than they did.

            I first realized how delicate a situation my forgetting could be a few years earlier when my brother’s best friend Bobby came by while I was home from the hospital on a pass. Bobby rang the bell, and I let him in. I asked him to wait while I went to find Richie, who was home on a pass from the Army. Soon after that they left to go drinking. My brother didn’t return until after I was asleep. But the next day, before I went back to the hospital, a scowling Richie stopped me in the front hall. He pushed his face into mine. He glared into my eyes.
            “I’m very disappointed in you,” Richie said, pointing his finger at me as if I were some snot-nosed kid and not his older sister. “I expect you to treat my friends with respect, do you understand?”
            “Wha-what?” I stammered.
            “Bobby said you were cold,” Richie growled. “You acted like you didn’t know him.“
            “He’s your friend. I wasn’t rude.”
            Then I learned that Bobby and I had been friends, too. He had been looking forward to visiting with me as well as with Richie. I could see why he’d felt rejected when I assumed he was interested only in my brother. I apologized. But I was also disappointed. I had thought my brother understood my memory problem. I was glad that I was about to leave.
            Maybe a year later, just after Thanksgiving, I was visiting home again. Richie had come home, too, although that day he was in New York City with friends. I had been out of the hospital for a few months, working as a bookkeeper at a hosiery company, living at the Y. During the years I had been away, my friends had graduated from high school and gone to college. They were moving on with their lives. My brother, who was very social and could get along with anyone, had become good friends with Lynnie, my childhood best friend. She had moved to California and married, but this week she was visiting her old home town.
            On that chilly November day, when Lynnie stopped over to see my brother, I didn’t recognize her. She looked flustered, too. A great deal of time had passed since our best-friend days of elementary and junior high school. Also, she may have been worried about what to do with a possible nut case.
            “Annita, wow, uh, how’s it going?”
            By then I knew enough to act like we were friends. “You look great. It’s been a while,” I said. “Can I get you some juice?”
            “What a treat!” Lynnie’s face lit up. “When was the last time? Remember those sleepovers we used to have? And the games! Do you still play?”
            “Richie is in New York. He told me you might be over . . . Yeah, I’m good, uh, how’s it with you? . . . I can’t believe how cold it is . . . Last week wasn’t so bad . . . . ”
            Lynnie looked beautiful in an up-to-date, stylish way. I stared at her green wool hat, at her clothes, but especially at her face as she brought up stories of old times together: “ . . . we went to the beach with your mother and decided to go to that party without asking . . . remember? When your brother took your books . . . Remember? . . . how we hated dancing school. . . Don’ t you remember?”
            I had nothing to say. Lynnie sat on the couch and fiddled with her hat.
            My face burned, and I began to sweat. I looked as intently as I dared. My ears examined every word. Inside my brain I urgently reviewed my life, and still I came up empty. I couldn’t remember anything about us. It was as if I had gone into my garden and found only asphalt and rocks where bright flowers and ripe vegetables were supposed to be growing.
            I had no choice left but to explain. “You know I was in the psych hospital here for a few years, right?” I paused. Lynnie didn’t move. “Well, they gave me lots of shock treatments. It makes you forget everything. I can’t remember anything about school—elementary or high school. I hate that. I’m really sorry.”
            At first she looked crushed. Inhaling slowly, Lynnie seemed to consider what I had said. I watched her finely penciled eyebrows lift, questioning. She tilted her head and tightened her lips. When she finally exhaled, she sighed.
            “That’s good to know,” Lynnie said, while her tone of voice implied that it wasn’t. “Please tell your brother I was here.” She picked up her purse, grabbed the jacket beside her, and left the house. I heard “Bye” a second before the door closed.
            I knew Lynnie didn’t believe me. I might even have scared her. After that, I hadn’t seen or heard from her again.

            “Have you been in touch with anyone else? Mac? Sara?”
            The question brought me back. I was right: this girl in front of me was a friend from high school. Mac and Sara had been in my class. I answered her without lying, “No, not recently. What about you?”
            She took off again with stories about her friends and her adventures. Eventually, I could even figure out who she was—Elaine. She’d been part of the group that shared most of the honors classes. That time I was lucky. I’d gathered enough clues to identify her by name. I didn’t remember any specific incidents involving Elaine and me, but at least I knew her name.
            “Well, this was fun. Tell the others ‘Hi’ for me when you see them.”
            “I sure will.”
            Elaine smiled, picked up her book bag, and walked away toward the street.
            “See you . . . Elaine,” I added, when she’d moved on too far to hear me.
            Over time, I had come to realize that no one could understand my condition of missing memory. I was incomprehensible, as if I were a visitor from another planet with customs known only to myself. So I had developed a system to avoid alienating or frightening people I met. If I listened to them carefully, at some point I would hear enough about who the individual was and where he or she came from that I could figure out the context in which they used to know me. After that I’d make some reference to what I thought we must have in common, and the person would leave satisfied, grateful even.
            I learned from this how hungry people were for someone to pay attention to what they had to say, and how little they noticed what actually occurred. I began to feel like an expert in listening. And, more important, in the process of seeking information to prove I was the person they thought I was, I learned a bit more about myself—who the Annita was they had known as their friend.

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