The Man Without a Shadow, Joyce Carol Oates, author; Susan Hanfield, narrator
Margot Sharpe is an intern in the Darven Park, Pennsylvania, neuropsychology laboratory of Milton Ferris. His university is engaged in the scientific study of memory, and its chief subject is amnesiac, Elihu Hoopes. It is hoped that through him they will unlock doors and solve problems regarding memory loss. Margot, is young, just about 24 years old, and she is overwhelmed by the opportunity to study, not only with Professor Ferris, but also to be involved in Project E.H. Hoopes is, at this time, in 1965, when she meets him, 38 years old. Fourteen months have passed since the illness that robbed him of his memory. Between the covers of this book, there is not only the scientific investigation of an amnesiac and the human brain, but there is also a possible murder mystery and an unorthodox love story unfolding. The book moves forward three decades in which Margot and the subject Elihu Hoopes are intimately involved with each other. Hoopes has no memory of those years, while Sharpe creates her own memories of their experiences, documenting some and leaving others out of her records in order to protect her own dysfunctional need to be loved. Her feelings for Hoopes are too strong; she cannot seem to help herself. The reader will learn that after contracting Herpes Simplex Encephalitis and failing to call for help soon enough, a part of Elihu Hoopes’ brain was compromised, the part that controlled memory. No longer could he hold onto the thread of any idea for longer than 70 seconds; therefore, he had no future and almost no present; he lived only in his past since those memories remained mostly intact. For the remainder of his life, he would be 37 years old, the age he was when he was stricken with the illness. His altered appearance would not register with his brain; he would see the image he remembered of himself before his illness. As those he once knew aged and their appearance changed, he would no longer recognize them.
Each time Eli met someone new, in his mind, it was for the first time, since as seconds passed, the memory of having met that individual simply disappeared. He had accommodated in some way for his loss, and he had become quite adept at answering questions in a way that avoided admitting his constant confusion when he was questioned. Often, he responded to his interviewer with a statement implying that he knew the answer and surely so did the interviewer, so why query him? Sophisticated technology like that of the MRI had not yet been developed, so most of the methods used in the study of Elihu’s memory were hands on investigations conducted by analysts, face to face.
There were tests that gauged his memory of pain which caused him discomfort, but the researchers justified the pain with the thought that it was a scientific study, and they escaped their feelings of guilt because he could not remember what he had experienced, and he, therefore, would not understand the reason for his continued discomfort. He was, essentially their guinea pig. The neuropsychology lab eventually came under the control of Margot Sharpe. She severely limited outside intervention as she wanted complete control. She became far too deeply attached to him, hoping he would become attached to her, as well, even with his memory deficit. However, although Elihu Hoopes was the subject of study for Margot Sharpe for three decades, until his death in November of 1996, he made little progress and never remembered who she was from visit to visit.
Joyce Carol Oates researched the subject well and her examination of the minds of this amnesiac and those who studied him, of the world of research with its competition and duplicity, and of the dangers of getting too close to a subject and losing sight of the purpose of the study in favor of one’s own needs is detailed and informative. Subtly, Oates compared the mind of the analyst to the mind of the amnesiac, pointing out how the memory problems of the afflicted and the supposedly more normal memory of the analyst paralleled each other in several ways. Margot Sharpe knew that in some cases, either one couldn’t remember accurately or one sometimes chose not to remember. She was a victim of that same symptomology as she more and more over identified with her subject, soon falling in love with him. Who better than an amnesiac to satisfy her need to be loved and accepted? He would reassert his love anew, each time she instigated the idea of their love for each other. She then chose to remember their meetings in her own way, often having nothing to do with reality, often hiding from the reality. Because she was in complete control of his environment at the university, she was able to conduct her fantasies with him without interference. He dominated her life to the exclusion of all else. Were Margot Sharpe’s memories any more accurate than Eli’s.? Both had dreams and nightmares about events that may or may not have occurred. Did she see herself as an aging woman or did she see what she wanted to see in the mirror, as Eli was forced to see what he once was in the mirror? She had irrational expectations, like a possible pregnancy in her mid fifties. Throughout the book, the reader will not be able to prevent the thought, “doctor heal thyself”. Is this psychoanalyst in need of therapy too? Is her behavior acceptable? Are her motives genuine and altruistic or unethical and selfish?
Perhaps because Hoopes was forced to live in a world of constant repetition, so was the reader. Because it was so repetitive, it was occasionally tedious. However, the in-depth exploration of the interaction between the characters and the development of their disparate personalities and dysfunctions was interesting. Although the timeline seemed unclear, at times, I attributed that to the author’s desire to immerse us into the confused world of Hoopes and Sharpe. Hoopes was perpetually in 1965, and Margot’s new life began then and ended with the death of Hoopes in 1996. It almost seemed as if the analyst was more damaged, at times, than the subject. Although she was supposed to be the rational one, she often behaved irrationally.
The research world was depicted as a bit corrupt with deserving researchers going unsung, not receiving credit for their effort while the heads of the labs reaped the fruits of their work. The narrator of the book had an appropriately spectral voice, especially when it came to the responses of Hoopes to his interviewers. She created an atmosphere of wonder with her tone, even of otherworldliness when it came to describing the dreams and nightmares of both Sharpe and Hoopes. When Eli asks Margot if there could be a person without a shadow, explaining that without a memory it was like being without a shadow, he revealed that he believed he was a man without a shadow. I wondered if Margot’s shadow was somehow lost in his. From 10/17/1965-11/26/1996, Margot devoted her life to the study of Eli. She loved him, the man who could not, but briefly, love her. Was those brief moments enough?