Consider the connective tissue holding a long-term marriage together: a web of understanding based on personal history—years of discussion, arguments, realizations, inside jokes, terms of endearment, intimate gestures, memories of private moments. Then think about a spouse suddenly losing all that backstory, and in the process, losing the personality that made you fall in love with him or her in the first place. Now you’re married to the same physical person, but the persona has been wiped clean, like a hard drive. Who is this new spouse in your bed? Are you still in love? And if your partner can’t weigh in on your shared past, what counts as the truth?
Green Lake–based essayist and screenwriter Sonya Lea, 55, faced precisely such questions when, in 2003, her husband, Richard Bandy, went into the hospital for a radical treatment of a rare cancer in his abdomen. He was cured of the disease, but due to a brain injury caused by internal bleeding during the surgery, he emerged with no memory of the more than two decades they spent together, and no sign of his former identity. “The body was there, but the personality was not,” Lea says.
In person, Lea is calm and still, possessed of an intense focus—it’s the presence of someone who stumbled into hell and found her way out, carrying with her a new and otherworldly understanding. Her compelling new memoir, Wondering Who You Are, traces her struggle to come to terms with the profoundly puzzling loss of the man she had loved since she was a teenager—and the sudden arrival of a new husband. Before, Bandy was a loquacious, magnetic, athletic leader. After, he was quiet and submissive, with a flat affect and no initiative in the relationship. “I had to grieve for the loss of my former husband,” Lea says, “and wait around to see if I’d fall in love with the new guy.”
The new guy needed an immense amount of help, including physical therapy, speech therapy, and relearning the basics of conversation, eye contact and table manners. His doctor told Lea that while Bandy still had a “relatively coherent semantic memory,” meaning the ability to retain facts—who his family members are, how to get around town, who is the president—his injury left him with almost no episodic memory, “which is the narrative of one’s life, one’s autobiography,” she writes.
Lea was thrown into the leadership role in the marriage—and in some ways became Bandy’s parent, which challenged the relationship in crucial ways. While her new husband had emerged with an openly loving nature (he started calling her “Sweetness,” a term he’d never before used), he had no memory of sex, or how to make love in a mature, responsive way. This last shift proved particularly disorienting to Lea, as they had maintained a healthy sex life throughout their long marriage.
During a particularly difficult time, a friend of hers said what Lea wouldn’t articulate: It would’ve been easier if Bandy had died. Instead, she had to contend with “ambiguous, tenuous uncertainty,” she writes, comparing it to the psychic limbo experienced by people who lose a loved one to kidnapping, dementia, addiction or mental illness.
With poetic prose and remarkable candor, Lea shares the details of helping her husband regain a sense of purpose (he was determined to return to his work as a physical therapist), and her own difficult transition from desperately wanting “the old Richard” back to acknowledging that the former incarnation of her husband would never return.
While Lea and her two young-adult children railed against the reality of this alien father figure, Bandy wasn’t bothered by the change. Having no memory of his previous identity, he didn’t have reason to mourn its loss. “Richard isn’t experiencing grief for a lost self,” she writes, “grief pours only from us who knew him before.” Those of us who remember the past cling to it most, because it defines us. “I’m the one who is terrified of losing my identity,” Lea concludes.
The trauma caused her to think more existentially about memory’s relationship to identity. Lea says one of the central questions of the book is: What is remembering? How much does memory define the person you are and constrict the person you could be?
She’s highly aware that her own recollections are playing stand-in for her husband’s missing memories—he tries to keep track of them to make her happy—and also that her perspective is inherently different from his. This truth is further complicated by writing a memoir, in which those biased memories are edited in the process of storytelling. “Richard’s ‘memories’ are just what’s in the book,” she says with evident concern. Now she’s hoping to help him create “a history that’s separate from the book.”
Her crash course in brain science has led Lea to help others explore their identities by way of recollection. She’s teaching memoir writing at Hugo House (including “When Memory Doesn’t Serve,” on August 5) and is also working with the Red Badge Project (a program devoted to helping veterans tell their stories, held at Veterans Centers around the state) to teach women soldiers how to create authentic personal narratives.
In terms of her own narrative, Lea still marvels at the new marriage that has evolved from tremendous upheaval. “Our unconventional experience proved to us that radical questioning builds a rock-solid union,” she says. “The value of our particular love story is what we navigated from then to now.”