Novelist Talks about the Suffering of Others, and Her Own
December 16, 2005
By Rhonda Shafner/AP Writer/New York
Her skin is flawless. It appears particularly luminous on this dark, rainy morning. She is wearing a Mandarin-collared shirt adorned with small metallic Buddhas, a gift from a well-known Hong Kong designer. With her silver bracelets and pendant earrings, Amy Tan looks like she's about to step out for a typical New York evening.
But the best-selling author of "The Joy Luck Club," her first collection of interwoven stories, is seated at the kitchen table in her Manhattan loft, sipping a cup of freshly brewed coffee and talking about her latest novel, Saving Fish from Drowning.
The book is part comical, part supernatural and part political, and concerns a group of American tourists in Burma, or what is now Myanmar. The tale recounts how they handle their abduction by an ethnic minority who believe that one of the Americans has the power to liberate them from the long-reigning military junta's torture, forced labor, relocation and other abuse.
Because Burma is one of the worst violators of human rights in the world, Tan was hesitant to travel there to research the book. In the end, though, she decided to go. Like her characters, she went on a guided art tour with friends, starting out in China and continuing on the Burma Road.
But one of the main questions she set out to explore in the novel is: How do we best deal with the suffering of others?
?I realize that at this point in my life, the things that I think about a lot have to do with discomfort, discomfort about what I feel about the suffering of other people, of what I'm supposed to be doing, what I can do, what I can't do, what I don't want to do,? she says.
Tan's descriptions of the suffering of the Karen National Union, an ethnic insurgent group in Burma, are some of the most deeply felt in the novel. Her wealthy American characters get to see first hand the gross mutilations?missing limbs and scarred faces?of people who were forced to test land mines to see if they were still effective. How the Americans respond to the Karen suffering is painfully realistic.
The author's own suffering, from a case of Lyme disease she got in 1999, has helped her empathize with the suffering of others. But hasn't her own painful past?the deaths of her father and her older brother, managing her mother's depression and the murder of a close friend?already given her enough understanding of suffering?
?I think,? Tan says, ?that until you physically suffer and feel helpless and hopeless and wonder who is going to help you and how ... I think that was the turning point,? she says of how physical agony can be even worse than the loss of loved ones.
As a result of the Lyme disease, Tan has memory loss, seizures, hallucinations, and at times hasn't been able to walk. The pain in her feet was so terrible that the 53-year-old often could not leave her house. Now she takes anti-seizure medication, antibiotics, and gives herself an inter-muscular shot once a week, and feels ?great.?
?Now that I've been treated,? she later elaborated by e-mail, ?I am doing 120 percent?writing and doing things with great energy, taking advantage of the resources of my brain, and writing with a strong look at what is important.?
Tan grew up in the San Francisco Bay area with two brothers, the children of an engineer-Baptist minister father, and a mother who often threatened to kill herself. Tan's mother had witnessed her own mother's suicide as a child and when she emigrated from China, in 1949, she had to leave her three daughters behind.
At age 35, Tan sold her book proposal for The Joy Luck Club one month after her first trip to China with her mother. The book was published in 1989 to critical acclaim and became an international best seller. There are more than 5 million copies in print, and the book has been sold into over 25 countries, according to Tan's agent, Sandra Dijkstra. It is now something of an American classic and is taught in high schools and colleges. Tan also co-wrote the screenplay for the Wayne Wang film.
Tan has continued to explore mother-daughter relationships, the American immigrant experience, and Chinese history and myth in other best sellers, including The Kitchen God Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses and The Bonesetter's Daughter.
Questions about her role in the world and what she should be doing in it probably come from her father, who died from a brain tumor when Tan was a teenager.
?I haven't written about him because I idealized him. In my mind, he was a morally almost perfect person, even though his thoughts about [morality] were kind of impossible,? she says.
Tan worked on her latest novel for five years with Molly Giles, a writer, teacher and friend who has helped edit most of Tan's novels. ?Amy calls me her ?outhouse editor,?? Giles says. ??Molly sees the manuscript when it's still (excrement).??
Giles calls Tan ?fragile.?
?She received a lot of publicity early. It makes a writer slightly paranoid. It happens to a lot of writers in the limelight,? Giles says.
Tan does seem guarded, but she is battling a three-day cold. Lou DeMattei, an investment adviser and Tan's husband of 31 years, unobtrusively sets a box of tissues in front of her during a recent interview. But he is scarce during most of the visit, emerging to quiet their Yorkshire terrier, Bubba, who begins barking when a photographer arrives.
Tan and her husband?the couple has no children?have a home in San Francisco, but stay in New York when Tan needs to do lectures or charity events.
Their home seems well-outfitted for overnight guests and entertaining. There is a ?guest tent??multicolored fabric enclosing a double bed near the entrance?a newly designed kitchen and a Steinway grand piano. Tan studied classical piano for 15 years.
Tan bought the apartment 10 years ago when her New York editor, Faith Sale, became ill with cancer, and Tan wanted to be nearby to help her. She calls Sale one of her biggest influences as a writer. She was ?a mensch of an editor, who cared as much if not more about the writer than the book.? Sale died in 1999, several weeks after Tan's mother.
Tan has been in China three times in the last year, most recently to research her new project?an operetta based on her best-selling novel, The Bonesetter's Daughter, about a San Francisco woman learning about her elderly mother's life in pre-Communist China. Tan is writing the libretto, and composer Stewart Wallace is writing the music.
Amy Tan: "Suurin vahinko jonka borrelioosi on minulle aiheuttanut, on ollut kohtaamani välinpitämättömyys." Kirjailija Amy Tan sairastaa myöhäisvaiheen borrelioosia. Hän ei olisi ikinä voinut kuvitella kuinka vaikea diagnoosin saaminen voi olla ja miten ihmeellisiä taudin oireet ovat.
Amy oli saanut punkin pureman todennäköisesti kaksi vuotta ennen hallusinaatioiden alkua. Neurologisiin oireisiin hän ei ollut saanut aiemmin apua, pikemminkin tietämättömyyttä ja jopa vihamielisyyttä. Lääkärit sanoivat toistuvasti, ettei hänellä voi olla borrelioosia koska Kaliforniassa ei ole tautia.
Amy kertoo olevansa tyypillinen borrelioosiin sairastunut, joka on nähnyt lukuisia lääkäreitä ja jolle on tehty useita kalliita testejä. Viimein tri Stricker ymmärsi ottaa borrelioositestit - ne tehtiin IGENEXillä. Testitulokset olivat positiiviset.
Hän sai antibiootteja useiden kuukausien ajan (v. 2003). Hänellä oli hoidon aikana edelleen fatiikkia, tinnitusta, muistin heikkenemistä, hallusinaatioita, hiusten ohenemista, huimausta, nivelkipuja, puutumista jne. Amyn antibioottihoito vaihdettiin doksisykliinistä metronidazoleen. Strickerin mukaan toipuminen tapahtuu vaiheittain ja hoitoa voidaan joutua jatkamaan kuukausia, jopa vuosia.
Amyn tarina antaa hyvän kuvan siitä miten vaikea borrelioosia on diagnosida ja hoitaa silloin, kun oireet ja taudin paraneminen eivät noudata "ohjekirjojen" kuvauksia.
Amyn mukaan borrelioosiin sairastuneet eivät voi odotella vuosikausia, jotta tiede liikahtaisi hoidon ja diagnosoinnin suhteen tuuman eteenpäin. Hän ei voi ymmärtää, että lääkärit epäilivät hänellä mitä erilaisimpia sairauksia kuten syfilistä (Amy on ollut naimisissa 29 vuotta) ja Lou Gehrigiä, vaikka borrelioosi on niinkin yleinen sairaus - yleisin hyönteisten välittämä sairaus USA:ssa.
Amy Tan, Ticked Off About Lyme
The Novelist, Under Treatment for Late-Stage Lyme Disease, Could Never Have Conceived How Hard It Would Be to Get a Diagnosis -- or How Surreal the Symptoms Could Be
By J.J. McCoy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 5, 2003; Page HE01
Hän alkoi saada haluusinaatioita alastomista miehistä ja silloin hän tiesi että jokin on pahasti vialla. "Kuvittelin ensin erilaisia asioita kuten että joku on kuollut kunnes tajusin että hallusinaatiot eivät olleet todellisia."
It wasn't until she began having hallucinations about a naked man approaching her bed that novelist Amy Tan got really worried.
She first assumed what she was seeing was her husband, who brings her coffee in the morning. "But it was the middle of the night," she recalls, and "he wasn't saying anything or doing anything else. He was just coming toward me [before stopping] next to the bedstand, as though he was turning on the light."
She took his silence to mean the worst.
"I thought someone was dead," she recalls. "I reached for him, and the image started to warp as I realized it wasn't real."
She sprang to in dread and started running through her SoHo loft, calling out for him -- and very soon finding her flesh-and-blood husband, Lou DeMattai, calmly watching TV.
"Oh, thank God, you're alive!" she said.
What Tan didn't realize is that her experience about 18 months ago was perhaps only the strangest manifestation of what has since been diagnosed as late-stage Lyme disease -- an illness she believes she had contracted two years earlier but that continued to cause neurological damage, thanks to several misdiagnoses by doctors unfamiliar with or even hostile to the possibility.
Even now, after several months of treatment with antibiotics, Tan says her symptoms range from fatigue and memory loss to tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and olfactory hallucinations.
"I smelled dead rat briefly, but over a period of hours" and in different locations. "It's definitely weird."
Other symptoms have included hair loss, memory gaps, dropping first letters of words when writing by hand and replacing words with similar-sounding gibberish when speaking. Most recently she's experienced vertigo and expects that she'll continue to feel some joint pain "as a souvenir."
Tan's case dramatizes the growing, increasingly acrimonious division in the medical community over the proper treatment and diagnosis of Lyme disease, an illness caused by a bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi, that enters the body via the bite of a deer tick.
-------The No Luck Club
Tan's story illustrates how difficult diagnosis and treatment can be for someone whose case does not conform to the standard course. Tan didn't realize how tiny the tick could be -- about the size of the period at the end of this sentence -- and her rash never fit the standard description. As bothersome as her months of joint pain, occasional numbness, headaches and memory lapses had become by 2001, she accepted numerous medical opinions writing them off as signs of getting older. (She was 49.) But she couldn't laugh off the hallucinations and memory lapses.
Both Tan's father and her older brother had died from malignant brain tumors. Her mother had a brain tumor, too, though hers was benign; she died after having been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
"I certainly considered [that I might be suffering from] Alzheimer's," Tan admits, "especially when I started having memory problems, and hiding mistakes that I'd made. I thought that must have been what it was like for my mother."
While her doctors quickly ruled out either those possibilities, they could not tell her what was wrong, even after two CAT scans, an MRI and a 48-hour hospitalized fast.
She broached the possibility of Lyme disease, but her doctor "told me three times he really didn't think I had Lyme, that we didn't have it in California, and that it was rare." Tan reminded him that she and her husband split their time between the West Coast and New York, but the doctor was unmoved, she said. They left it at that.
....... Life, Interrupted
Tan says she is "not terribly angry with any of my doctors" for having missed her diagnosis, though the roster included her primary care physician, an endocrinologist, a sleep-disorder specialist, two neurologists, a cardiologist and an orthopedic surgeon. "They were doing the best they could."
"I'm angry at the California Medical Association," she says, "because they have a board policy that recommends that all Lyme disease patients be treated with 10 days' antibiotics. I'm angry that they perpetuate the myth that it's rare, easily tested and easy to treat.
"I'm mad at insurance policies. . . . I'm a typical long-term Lyme patient who's seen a lot of doctors and had a lot of expensive tests done," Tan continues. While she could afford to spend more than $50,000 on diagnostic tests before learning what was ailing her, "I'm luckier than most -- there are many who have it far worse than I do."
"I know people who've lost homes, everything they have. I'm mad at the arbitrary saying that it's two weeks' treatment regardless of what's happening to you."
Nearly half a year before Tan's hallucinations began, she had returned home after a four-month, transoceanic book tour for her novel "The Bonesetter's Daughter." The persistent fatigue plaguing her before she started her itinerary had become life-consuming.
The day-long sleep that she first wrote off to jet lag didn't suffice; in the weeks that followed, she would sleep for 12 to 20 hours a day. Even more disturbing were the trembles that punctuated her sleep, waking her every two or three hours with what she called "Dolby Digital Syndrome" -- a feeling of constant vibration, like reverberation from a bass-heavy stereo.
When she shortly began waking each day with a sore neck, Tan bought a new buckwheat pillow. She tried another type, and still another, adding everything from Tempur-Pedic foam to a U-shaped neck roll.
As the weeks turned into months, the mental toll turned from an extended writer's block to an inability to maintain concentration or short-term memory.
"By page three or four [of her writing], I was unable to recall anything and had to begin anew," she says. At the dinner parties, "I often couldn't keep up with the repartee. . . . I nodded and laughed at the moments when everyone else did."
She decided to consult a psychiatrist for the first time in nearly 20 years; the doctor in turn suggested she also get a complete medical workup.
Finally, after comparing what she knew with what other patients reported on the ILADS Web site (www.ilads.org), Tan discovered Rafael Stricker, a Lyme specialist in San Francisco.
Stricker says Tan's "clinical symptoms and history were very suggestive: striking psychiatric problems and hallucinations, which you can see with Lyme disease."
He tested her with a Western Blot, and had it analyzed by IGeneX.
Stricker says Tan has tested positively on the Western Blot five times in a row. Among the 16 antigen bands that IGeneX identifies, her tests "have been pretty uniform," with positives for seven or eight bands each time. She has consistently tested positive for two of the three bands the CDC considers accurate indicators of Lyme, he says. He considers her diagnosis conclusive.
Stricker points out that as a public health agency, the CDC is interested mainly in surveillance and less in clinical applications of tests. "They're not as concerned in missing something, while I want a test that works for my particular patient's diagnosis."
The CDC's Mead confirms that the agency's analysis of the Western Blot requires a minimum of two of the three bands for a positive diagnosis, and that "this is a surveillance-case definition," which is useful for tracking the disease but may not be sufficient for a specific patient.
"It's a balancing act," he says. "It's true that to a certain extent [we] have different objectives. A clinician can treat, just in case, to help his patient. Nevertheless, there can be problems with over-treatment [with long-term, powerful antibiotics]. Overall it's not helpful to treat someone without a disease."
Stricker recently changed Tan's antibiotic medication to Flagyl (metronidazole) from doxycycline. He says recovery is usually progressive: "Usually when they feel better, they stay better, though there's possibility of relapse. Sometimes it requires months" of treatment for a complete cure, he says. "Sometimes it requires years."
That Tan's answer hadn't been discovered through the CDC's diagnostic protocols doesn't surprise Edlow. After all, he says, the Borrelia burgdorferi spirochetes "are weird bugs. Part of the way that they evade the immune system is to morph, or change themselves to appear like a new bug to the immune system. Or they don't. Or else patients have one or another or more than one at the same time. It gets kind of tricky."
Tan meanwhile argues that Lyme disease patients can't afford to wait for the science to inch its way forward. Her imagination still reels at the thought she was tested for both syphilis (after 29 years of marriage) and Lou Gehrig's disease before her doctors considered her for what the CDC terms "the leading cause of vector-borne infectious illness in the U.S."
"I've never met a single person in my lifetime who had ALS, but they tested me for that before Lyme disease," Tan adds. "It's not the way the medical community should be dealing with these very real problems that people are having."
Imputing her symptoms to age strikes her as no more logical.
"Did most baby boomers lose their hair in clumps? Did [they] read e-mails and respond at length, then have no memory of doing either? Were they amazed to read unfamiliar pages of stories they had evidently composed? . . . Did they become lost in their own neighborhoods, unable to recognize any familiar landmarks, too mortified to ask for help?"
As she concludes in an essay from her upcoming book "The Opposite of Fate" : "I am in this for the long haul, with treatment that will likely last for years. I won't feel safe until the scan of my brain and blood tests on my immune system return to normal, until the Western Blot is negative for Lyme disease, and my myriad symptoms are gone. . . . By having Lyme disease, I have automatically been drawn into the medical schism over both its diagnosis and treatment."
"I now know what is the greatest damage that Borrelia has caused: It is ignorance."