He lost his mind

Jonathan Cott forgot 15 years of his life after electroshock for depression. Now he's picking up the pieces.

Published October 17, 2005 1:30PM (EDT)

Jonathan Cott has suffered from depression since he was 17. It became worse as he got older, but it wasn't until the '80s, when Cott was in his 40s, that antidepressant medication became widely available. Throughout the '80s and '90s Cott tried at least 20 different drugs, and was eventually diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder.

This didn't stop him from pursuing a successful career as a writer. Cott is the author of 16 books of nonfiction, including a biography of a 19th century muckraker, a study of a woman convinced she led a previous life in ancient Egypt and an exploration of the mystical allure and superstition surrounding the number 13. A contributing editor at Rolling Stone since the magazine's inception, Cott is also an acclaimed music critic whose many contributions to the field include an interview with John Lennon four days before his murder.

This winning streak came to an end in 1998, when Cott's mother died. Her death set off a bout of depression from which Cott was unable to recover. "I had been truly seriously depressed a number of times in my life, but never to the extent of being 'clinically' depressed," Cott says. "I just didn't care anymore."

That's when the electroconvulsive therapy began. Cott was given 36 treatments over the course of the next two years. When he emerged from them, he could remember nothing from the years 1985 to 2000. Fifteen years of his life -- friends he had known, places he had lived, books he had written -- had been completely wiped out.

In an attempt to come to grips with what had happened to him and move past his loss, Cott set out to interview a range of experts on various aspects of memory, from fields as diverse as neuroscience and Tibetan Buddhism. He didn't limit his inquiry to personal memory loss but broadened it to include the role of the African storyteller in preserving cultural memory, the relevance of emotional memory in the teachings of Konstantin Stanislavsky, and the importance of remembrance in the Jewish tradition, among other fascinating subjects. The interviews are collected in Cott's new book, "On the Sea of Memory: A Journey From Forgetting to Remembering," and together present a complex portrait of the many faces of memory and the profound role it plays in our daily lives.

Today Cott continues to piece together his life, and to struggle to keep writing, despite the unspeakable toll the ECT treatments took on his mind. In an e-mail explaining how he manages to persevere, he quotes Emily Dickinson, "who knew a lot about highs and lows." "'Have I a word but Joy?' I always think of that when I realize how lucky I am to have endured and been somehow able to write about that electroshock experience, one that many others -- about 100,000 Americans every year -- are unfortunately enduring right now."

Salon reached Cott by phone at his home in New York.

In your book you quote Steven Rose describing ECT as "analogous to trying to mend a faulty radio by kicking it.

Yes, and I was the radio.

How exactly does ECT work?

They send an electrical current of about 200 volts for a fraction of a second through the frontal lobes of the brain, by means of electrodes connected to a machine that resembles a stereo receiver. But I don't remember that. I only remember receiving the anesthesia. I remember the feeling of falling off into unconsciousness, which was a beautiful feeling. But that's all.

You must have agreed to go along with it at some point.

Well, I was in a pretty distraught state, emotionally, and I think I had been talked into it by the doctors. They said I was in a really bad state and that I really needed to do this, and that there would be no serious side effects. I'd lose some memory but the memory would come back. This is what they tell patients. And when you're in a really disruptive state, like I was, it's very hard to be objective. I certainly hadn't thought about ECT treatments before. I didn't know they still gave them.

The last of the treatments happened seven years ago. Have you forgiven the doctors and moved on, or do you still feel angry?

I was angry, to begin with, that the doctors didn't really tell the truth about the possible damage that can occur, both cognitively and in memory loss. And I still feel angry about that. I believe that ECT does damage the brain. There's dispute about this, but there's increasing evidence to show that this is certainly a possibility. And there are many other people, not just myself, who suffer this kind of damage. I'm not prone to anger, but I do feel angry for the sake of other people. I really feel that ECT shouldn't be used at all except as a last resort, in the very final moments of emotional desperation, or mania, or catatonia.

Is it really true that those 15 years are just -- gone? Do you have any recollection, for instance, of the Lockerbie bombing?

Was that the plane that was blown up? I don't remember that. I don't remember the end of the Cold War; I don't remember the end of apartheid; I don't remember anything that happened in Bosnia and Sarajevo. This is all stuff I read about afterward.

What about the Exxon Valdez? Does that ring a bell?

[Long silence] Is that the boat that was blown up?

No. It was an oil tanker.

The oil tanker. That al-Qaida attacked?

No, it hit a reef. The captain was drunk. It resulted in a massive oil spill.

I read about it, but I don't remember it.

What about the Los Angeles riots?

Oh, the L.A. riots -- I remember because that was -- what year was that?

The early '90s, '92.

I'm thinking of the L.A. riots that occurred years before then. No, I don't remember those.

And Waco, Texas?

[Long silence] I read about that. That was with David Koresh? See, I don't remember those things happening, but I've read about them since then and seen reports on them on television. That's how I find out about them.

As you began to find out about all these things, was there any one event that particularly shocked or surprised you?

Well, I was overjoyed to hear about the end of apartheid. I was really upset, but more on a personal level, when I heard that Glenn Gould had died, or that John Lennon had died, or that Bob Marley had died -- people whom I cherished, poets I had admired. I found out they had died at the same time. They all died at once.

Basically a massacre.

Yes. I do have flashbulb memories of certain events. Not political events; those I don't remember at all. But like getting lost in the Sahara Desert for about 16 hours. For some reason I remember that extremely well. That wasn't erased, like the blackboard that's been erased from my life. I remember sitting in a park in Copenhagen, Denmark, one fall afternoon and feeling really, really relaxed, and I was reading a book. Of all the time I spent in Copenhagen I for some reason remember that one moment. I don't know why. The Sahara Desert I understand. I mean that situation must have really shook me up. But sitting in the park? It was just a simple, pastoral moment.

How exactly did you go about filling in the blanks?

I got ahold of old magazines, or people would tell me certain events had occurred, and then I'd go and research them. I didn't know how to work the computer, so I had to learn computers, and now I can use the Internet to figure things out. But it took me a long time to learn computers because of the cognitive failures that ECT contributes to. The treatments lowered my IQ enormously, so I'm much slower at learning things.

I also have a problem with reading. When I read a sentence, I don't remember what I've just read. So I've trained myself to do certain mental exercises to concentrate on what I'm reading, and I underline everything. I have to go back and read what I've underlined, and even then I have a hard time remembering. But I do the best I can.

I sound like a sad case, but I do have a sense of humor about myself, and that gets me through.

What about personal memories? There's no newspaper to record those.

Well, I have good friends. A friend of mine told me one story where I went through my address book after I got out of the hospital and called her up. I said, Who are you? Her name was in my address book, and I didn't know who she was. So I was calling up people to find out who they were.

Among the stories that you heard from friends, which are the ones that you most cherish?

They have to do with, one, people I was involved with, friends; and two, the places I visited, because I traveled a lot for my work, for the books and articles I wrote. Tibet, Japan, China, Ireland and Edmonton, Canada. And I was in Guadalupe, apparently. I found a T-shirt from Guadalupe that told me I had been there, although I don't remember having gone there. I use T-shirts and postcards and photographs and things like that to remind me of where I've been.

But as far as things that I've cherished ... Well, no, I can't remember. I have to have friends tell me things that have happened to me and that I must have cherished. And reexperiencing them in my imagination, I realize that I did cherish those things. It's like reconstructing something. So instead of remembering things I imagine them having happened. It's a comfort to me to be able to reenter those worlds. I don't remember them, but I can imagine having experienced them. It's an interesting exercise, to try to imagine what it would be like to have experienced something, if you don't remember it.

It happens every time you read a book.

Yes. And you know, I don't remember any of the books or movies that I read or saw during that period, so that's 15 years' worth of literature and film and even music. I look at my CD collection and I have no idea where those CDs came from. I think, Wow, how did I get that, or why did I buy this one?

One of the interviews in your book is with Floyd Skloot, who suffered similar damage after contracting postviral encephalopathy. In your conversation with him he talks about various tricks he uses to get by with a damaged memory. Did you find any of these tricks useful?

No, I have to work my own method out. For instance, I write down words that I see in the newspaper that I don't understand and don't know anymore. Oh, my God, I have about a 30-page book here that I write in, words that I want to remember. And I go over them often to try to refresh my memory.

Can you say what some of the last entries are?

Crapulous. You really want to know a few of them? Some of them are quite simple, but I've forgotten them. Parlous. Which means risky or dangerous. Curmudgeon. Obviously it's a word I know. It means a surly person of some sort. Pullulate. Words like that. I have 30 pages of these words.

The interviews touch on both personal and cultural memory, and sometimes it seems as if you're mourning the loss of one right alongside the loss of the other.

There's social amnesia as well as personal amnesia. Most Americans don't remember what happened a few years ago. It's all what appears now on television. They don't remember what happened in 1953 in Iran, when [Mohammed] Mossadegh was removed from power, and what that means for present-day politics in the Middle East. At the same time Americans have this wonderful, insatiable curiosity about the American Revolution, with all these bestselling books about Washington and Jefferson and Adams. They can remember that period but they don't want to remember what happened in Central America under Reagan's administration, which I've been reading a lot about recently.

What drew you to that subject in particular?

There's a poet I like very much named Carolyn Forché, and she wrote a book ... I'm trying to remember the name. It's a really extraordinary book of poems: "The Country Between Us." It's a book of poems about El Salvador during the fighting that happened there, and they are just extremely powerful poems. This is someone I had interviewed, apparently. I know I interviewed her because I have the interview. It was published in a book of mine. But actually I do remember that interview because that was before my memory faded out. And I guess I remember the El Salvador war a little bit, so that's a bad example. I'm just trying to think of something else ...

What was the question again?

What draws you to learn about specific subjects.

Well, I learned about Srebrenica recently, with the anniversary of it. It hit my heart so bad. Then again a lot of people in Serbia didn't want to admit that it had happened. So they refused to remember it, and I didn't remember it myself -- but of course for different reasons. I had forgotten because of my shock treatments; they had forgotten because of whatever shock of conscience they had.

To return to the book for a moment, the interviews at the beginning seem to focus more on science and the interviews at the end more on religion. Did you find one or the other more useful to you personally?

I learned from the science interviews because I knew nothing about the subject to begin with. I had to educate myself by reading many, many books, and as I told you I have a hard time reading. So you can imagine it was very difficult to understand even the basic material necessary to approach these neuroscientists. I learned from the spiritual people as well, but I tended to be more moved by what they said. Especially Robert Frager, with his discussion of the Sufi remembrance ritual, the dhikr.

What's that?

That's the ceremony of remembrance, when the worshipers repeat the 99 names of God in Arabic. They sometimes do dancing motions, and there are certain breathing exercises that occur as well. I didn't know about that ritual. It's a journey within as well as a journey without. The word dhikr in Arabic designates both repetition and remembrance, and the idea is that the repetition of the name of God and the remembrance of God occur at the same moment. The repetition descends from the tongue to the heart, and the remembrance of the heart then deepens and becomes the remembrance of the soul. That struck me as very beautiful.

Spirituality also comes up in the interview with Floyd Skloot. In your conversation with him you quote from his book, "In the Shadow of Memory," in which he describes himself "dwelling more in the wider realm of sense and emotion, out of mind and into body, into heart. An altered state."

And how he lives in the Zen now, which he discovered, and I discovered myself. It also comes up in the interview with David Shenk, about Alzheimer's disease. He suggests in his book "The Forgetting" that the short-circuiting of memory forces Alzheimer's sufferers to be always in the now. He suggests further that it leads to an actual heightening of consciousness, and I had connected that with the Buddhist idea of existing in the moment, and discovering the infinite in the finite of each instant.

He received some angry letters from people who felt this was cruel, to suggest that there was something positive about Alzheimer's. But he had learned about this from an Alzheimer's sufferer, a man named Morris Friedell, who claimed that Alzheimer's sufferers can appreciate clouds and leaves and flowers as they never could before. They live in the present; they don't have a past. They don't even remember their childhoods. They don't remember their family. They don't remember anybody.

And this is an idea that has resonance with you? Do you find that you're more attentive to leaves, clouds, habitués of the moment?

Yes, I am. The seeds were always there, but my loss of memory definitely made it much more real to me, and made me cherish moments much more than I ever did before. But that really has less to do with loss of memory than one's own spiritual development, one's own sense of awareness, and how you can heighten that through self-discipline.

Last question. In the book you mention a story from a diary by Jean Cocteau, in which he returns to the house where he grew up. Running his hand along the wall behind the house, as he used to as a child, the memories come rushing back to him. "Just as the needle picks up the melody from the record, I obtained the melody of the past with my hand." Do you ever stop believing that one day your memories will come back to you?

No, I don't think they will.

So you're resigned to that.

Yes, I am. Although in the book I do quote several spiritual teachers who say we are our memories, and therefore whether we remember them or not they're still with us. And so I'm hoping that in some slightly mystical way they are still with me, in my body somewhere. It's like when I wake up from a dream and I remember for a split second the content of the dream, the images in the dream, and then a second later I don't remember anything. But for that split second I remember them, and I think that maybe in some way those images have filtered down and integrated into my consciousness. Or my subconsciousness, let's put it that way. And they are there to draw on. But I don't know. That's just a mystical belief.

I just want to tell you it was a pleasure talking about this, because when I talk about it, it clears up the blur, the haze. If there's a chance that you could make a copy of the conversation, that would be wonderful, because the questions touched on experiential matters and social matters that I want to keep in my mind and not forget.

By Oliver Broudy

Oliver Broudy is a freelance writer living in New York.

MORE FROM Oliver Broudy

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Author Interviews Books