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What We’re Reading: Wondering Who You Are

2015 October 29

What We're Reading

WWYA-coverWondering Who You Are by Sonya Lea (Tin House Books, 2015)

In 2000, Richard Bandy was diagnosed with a rare and serious form of appendix cancer. An elective form of risky and then-experimental surgical chemotherapy worked, but complications that followed the procedure resulted in an anoxic brain injury. The brain injury caused him to lose not only his memory but also all traits of his former personality. The outgoing, driven, masculine (and sometime violently angry) man was replaced with a quiet, emotional, and passive one. The author of Wondering Who You Are is Sonya Lea, Richard Bandy’s wife. Lea’s unsettling and raw memoir blends medical drama, personal narrative, and the story of a long — and ultimately enduring — marriage.

Bandy and Lea married and had a family while they were both young. Although they loved each other deeply, their marriage was not always an easy one. Lea struggled with alcoholism for several years, and Bandy struggled with an anger that at times became physical. But, despite their lows, the two always found their way back to each other; it’s clear through her telling that they shared a profound love. However, following her husband’s brain injury, Lea finds herself thrust into an incredibly difficult scenario: her husband is alive, but he’s not the same man to whom she was married. Over the course of several years following the brain injury — and with much rehab, therapy, and neurological care — Bandy eventually regains enough skill to fully function, and he is eventually able to return to work. Despite that, he never recovers many memories, and his personality remains vastly different.

Of course, this situation raises fascinating questions: who are we without our history? What happens to our identities when we lose our historical moorings? Lea spends the bulk of the memoir facing these questions along with her husband — although they’re each forced to face these questions in their own, much different ways. In some aspects, Bandy’s injury has insulated him from the gravity of the situation: he grieves, but he is also unable to live in anything but the present. Lea, on the other hand, understandably dwells in the past, desperate to bring her husband as she knew him back. She writes,

I see that Richard isn’t scared of our situation. The sadness he occasionally feels is because he’s concerned about my suffering. I’m the one who is terrified of losing my identity. Especially the “us” that I think I remember. While I’m making dinner, crying to my friends, listening to my husband snore, I slowly wake up to the truth that I have no idea what makes me “me.” And the thing about truth is that it dismantles even as it inhabits.

As time goes on and it becomes obvious that her husband will never be the same man he was before his brain injury, Lea becomes cognizant of the shift she’s undergoing. Bandy’s not the only one who has lost something; Lea, too, grieves for the man, the memories, and the shared identity that the two have lost. She grapples with the way she now feels for her husband; initially, his new personality is deeply unsettling. She is unhappy with his maddening passivity, unhappy with what she feels is the loss of his masculinity, and unhappy with the loss of intimacy between them. She has to decide whether she can continue to view him as a “complex, intimate partner.” In an attempt to rediscover their love, the two travel together, relocate frequently, even invite a third party into their marriage. Although the path back to happiness is winding, the risks they take together eventually do serve to reawaken Lea’s love — or, more accurately, they allow Lea to begin to accept her husband for who he is now: “Sometimes things are mysterious in our relationships, and then we get to see our beloved, and it cracks the heart wide open.”

As she fills in Richard’s memory with the history of their marriage, she admits that she could downplay their more unpleasant chapters, but that to do so would dishonor their truth. The same can be said for this book. There are many unsettling — even angering — moments, and as a reader, I had to be conscious to set aside my own identity and judgments and remind myself that she was telling her story as it unfolded for her and her husband. She shares with her readers intimate thoughts, emotional conversations, and the most private scenes of her relationship with Richard. These are daunting subjects to write about, and I commend her for a willingness to write candidly about the intimacy within a marriage — the book is a page-turner because of this approach.

Lea’s stark, intense, and beautiful writing, combined with her unsettling but compelling subject matter, means that Wondering Who You Are is a memoir that will stay with me for a long time to come.

Have you read any books that you enjoyed but were unsettled by? If so, were you able to separate yourself from the book and understand what it is was that made the book difficult for you? Did needing that introspection add to your opinion of the book or detract from it?


3 Responses
  1. Liz permalink
    October 29, 2015


    Great review. I’ve read Wondering Who You Are and I don’t know how I could have written one so concisely graceful and comprehensive. Thanks for doing this work.


  2. Jessica M. permalink
    October 30, 2015

    Thanks, Liz!

  3. Lynn James permalink
    November 1, 2015

    Excellent, thoughtful review.

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