If such a thing as a typical amnesia memoir exists, it’s fair to say that Tara Sidhoo Fraser’s debut, When My Ghost Sings: A Memoir of Stroke, Recovery, and Transformation, is not it, though “amnesia memoir” is a contradiction in terms anyway, perhaps explaining why it’s not a densely populated genre. In literature, it is in the realm of fiction where amnesia abounds as a convenient and most unsubtle plot device, utilized by writers as wide-ranging as L.M. Montgomery and Liane Moriarty, always providing a satisfying ending as the characters’ memories are miraculously recovered and the truth of their stories is revealed.
In real life, however, revelations are more elusive, as are miracles and fixed notions of truth. In her memoir, Sidhoo Fraser leans into the uncertainty instead of trying to fill the gaps, crack the code, and solve the inherent mystery – if only because her lived experience gives her no other option. In 2014, at the age of 32, Sidhoo Fraser had a stroke caused by a genetic mutation, and she awakened after surgery with only vague memories of her previous existence and a sense that she was inhabiting a body and an entire life that belonged to somebody else. The person she had been before her stroke becomes a character she calls “Ghost” for the way this former self continues to haunt her mind, body, and others’ perceptions of her. And the person who Sidhoo Fraser has become since her stroke – experiencing physical symptoms, forgetfulness, and brain fog along the way – exists in an intermediate state that is at times agonizing.
It is this willingness to explore liminality, instead of trying to resolve it, that makes When My Ghost Sings an atypical memoir in general; it’s also an atypical medical memoir for being fundamentally the story of a queer love triangle. Post-stroke, Sidhoo Fraser falls in love with and becomes engaged to marry Jude, whose experiences as a nonbinary person are in some way analogous to Sidhoo Fraser’s in-betweenness. All the while, however, Ghost continues to haunt with a preoccupation with her ex-partner, “the boy,” to whom Sidhoo Fraser is still drawn: he helps her make sense of the pieces of her former life and is able to confirm which of her memories really happened. Ghost isn’t ready to let go of the boy, which causes friction in Sidhoo Fraser’s relationship with Jude.
The arrangement is a tangle, just like the blood vessels in her brain, and in her narrative, Sidhoo Fraser lets it be as complicated, messy, and difficult as the reality. Which means, of course, that this is a memoir that’s complicated, messy, and difficult – and sometimes this works: the fragmented narrative that jumps around in time, the unreliability of Ghost’s memories. Other aspects of the memoir are less effective. While “Ghost’s wailing” can be understood as tinnitus brought about by brain trauma, as Sidhoo Fraser explains, other attempts to describe Ghost’s presence in her body (“Ghost has memories of the boy that she has bundled with fat and crammed into my lymph nodes,” or “Ghost would grow bored and begin clawing at my esophagus and pushing her legs against my rib cage”) are trying too hard.
But maybe it makes sense that a memoir about transition and in-betweenness will fail to fully bridge the gap between its author’s experience and a reader’s understanding of it. The discomfort and uncertainty are the very point of this memoir; the author is showing readers how to reside in liminal spaces, how to make sense of fragments. In When My Ghost Sings, Sidhoo Fraser tells a story of disability and queerness in a brave and original way.