Where Is the Mango Princess?

by Cathy Crimmins

Published by Knopf

257 pages, 2000

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Brain Drain

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


"The brain is an amazing organ," writes humorist and journalist Cathy Crimmins in her bittersweet memoir of traumatic brain injury, Where Is the Mango Princess? "The three-pound blob keeps lots of great information up there, like the lyrics to the Beverly Hillbillies theme song, the sensation of your first kiss, and the digits of your childhood phone numbers. Put your brain through a windshield at seventy miles an hour or bash it with a sledgehammer, and then it's a crapshoot."

In this case, it wasn't a sledgehammer but a boat. On a lakeside vacation near Kingston, Ontario in the summer of 1996, Cathy Crimmins' husband Alan Forman nearly died in a freakish accident: "Alan's brain got run over by a speedboat," she explains. "That last sentence reads like a bad country-western song lyric, but it's true. It was a silly, horrible, stupid accident." The speedboat, attempting to avoid a collision with Alan's boat, swerved suddenly and literally crashed into his skull.

The effect was as if all the well-ordered, delicate files of his brain -- memory and personality, speech and behavior -- were picked up, shaken violently, then tossed in the air, so that everything hit the ground in total disarray. At the time of the accident, even the best experts could not predict how much of himself he would ever get back.

And though his recovery turned out to be dramatic and remarkable, things would never be the same: "His rehabilitation counselor says that the 'old' Alan died on July 1, 1996, and a new one arose, created by the rivers and lakes of bruises that coursed over his brain as he lay unconscious in the days after his injury. He is a man with different frontal lobes, and a different personality to match."

What made things worse was that Crimmins, Forman and their seven-year-old daughter Kelly were away from their Philadelphia home (ironically, after winning the vacation in a raffle) and completely unfamiliar with the Canadian medical system. At first this seems to work in their favor: "I am now a convert to socialized medicine," she writes. "The national health care system up here means that no one has hassled me about Alan's care; he gets what any brain injury patient in Canada is entitled to."

Later when attempting to transfer Alan to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP), things turn hellish. Crimmins is caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare that will last for the duration of his recovery, battling incessantly and often fruitlessly with her HMO for proper care. As if refusing to acknowledge the gravity of his injury, they assume he can travel eight hours by regular ambulance. In her typically volatile manner, Crimmins explodes: "Well Christ, why don't I just tie my husband to the top of the goddamned car like a dead deer and drive him down to HUP?" Exasperated, she hires a private jet at great expense, only to find that the HMO has canceled it in favor of a "flying bucket" that sets back Alan's progress by precious weeks.

Even if the medical system had served them perfectly, the accident and its fallout are like a wrecking-ball crashing into the bedrock of the family system. Daughter Kelly, who was unlucky enough to be in the boat at the time of the accident, is so traumatized she cannot bear to spend time with her mother, let alone her father. Crimmins' mother-in-law reacts with peculiar denial when she sees him before he regains consciousness:

"I don't understand it," says his mother when she arrives two days later. "He's usually so lively!"

I leave the room. "Your son is in a coma!" I want to tell her. "He is not going to be lively now!"

With admirable fortitude, Crimmins stays at his bedside and talks to him constantly, but even when the miracle happens and he comes comes out of the coma, he seems like a badly-smudged, distorted copy of himself: "During two semiconscious days, he mostly grunts, and when he does speak, he has the limited vocabulary of a toddler: 'Who dat?'' 'What?' and 'Huh?' One day he says, over and over again, 'Okaaay. Bye-bye,' and the fingers on his left hand go up slightly, in a minimalist wave."

Crimmins admits that she is a poor choice to play the bedside angel of mercy, lacking the patience to monitor Alan's slow, subtle signs of progress. In times of frustration she tends to raise hell, even though to an outsider it looks as though she is surrounded by a host of supportive friends and rehab workers. Though her abrasiveness and sometimes harsh humor are obviously a coping device, it sometimes make the memoir heavy going, as in this vindictive passage:

I used to imagine murdering the wealthy HMO executives who make their money from denying benefits to people who have worked hard their whole lives; now I fantasize about roasting the executives slowly on a spit, then taking them down and throwing a few Band-Aids and a jar of Vaseline at them: "Here's the treatment -- this is what we've authorized for first-degree burns under your plan!"

These rants aside, Where Is the Mango Princess? (the title taken from one of Alan's more bizarre post-injury questions) is an absorbing and sometimes even riveting read. Crimmins has an eye for the small details that bring the story alive in the most poignant way. In the hospital, on a day when Alan is particularly lucid, this stunning scene unfolds:

But all of a sudden Al stops talking and turns to me. "I want to call Cathy."

I laugh lightly. "Al, I'm here. You don't have to call me. Here I am."

"No, I want to call Cathy. The Other Cathy. The one at home."

Alan leaves a message on her answering machine, saying "This is your husband." "When I get home," Crimmins writes, "I play it back, and I realize how appropriate it is that he wants to talk to the Other Cathy; after all, he is now Another Alan."

In spite of agonizing struggles, Alan Forman valiantly crosses one milestone after another, learning to walk, speak clearly, read and even work part-time as an attorney again. But Crimmins is all too aware that he is not the same man she married and never will be. At one point the rehab center gives her "good news":

Al tests with an average IQ. Great, except that he was way above average before the accident.

His subtle, sometimes nasty wit is gone, replaced by a wide-open, bust-out humor that causes him to guffaw loudly at social events. A former worrier, he no longer broods about anything and sends his wife the kind of mushy Hallmark card he never would have given her before. But out of the blue can come violent rages in which he screams at their already traumatized daughter Kelly. "Is Alan my spouse or my child?" Crimmins sometimes wonders. "I have to tell him when to eat, when to wipe his mouth, when to take a nap."

Her sense of loss and loneliness is intensified by the fact that well-meaning friends say things like, "Don't worry, Kelly is young. She won't remember what her father used to be like," and "It will get easier for you after you forget the old Al." But Crimmins does not want to forget, and the poignancy of her memories provides a painful counterpoint to the daily reality of life with the strange, "reborn" Al.

Though there are no neat reassurances at the end of this book, the way this small family hangs in and keeps on loving each other is genuinely touching. In her acknowledgements Crimmins saves her deepest gratitude for Alan Forman himself, for allowing her to tell his story with "no holds barred." Where Is the Mango Princess? is that sort of book: unvarnished, gutsy, gripping and full of all the best and worst of what it is to be human. | March 2001


Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.