So many kinds of pain, so little time. Or is it that we have too much time to hurt?
The three memoirs I discuss here are about different kinds of pain, from the physical to the emotional to what we might call the spiritual or existential. Each author has concocted a narrative that proves enriching to the reader. Not many laughs, but you won’t miss them.
Struck by Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel by Jason Padgett and Maureen Seaberg is a well-organized, snappy-to-read narrative about one of the few individuals who has acquired mathematical savant syndrome and synesthesia after a severe mugging left him with a traumatic brain injury.
This reader ended up feeling ambivalent about Padgett’s likability: before the injury, he was just a fun-loving sociable party-goer and bar-frequenter with no serious ambition, and afterward –now—he is a voluble math and physics lover with several oddities. Those include OCD (obsessiveness, fear of contamination) and PTSD. He draws what he sees, which are fractals and triangles and patterns overlaid on everyday items such as trees and people. The illustrations in the book are awe-inspiring, though I can barely imagine perceiving such images floating all around me, all the time and wherever I am.
More than once, Padgett (with the able writing assistance of his coauthor) states that he wouldn’t trade his “after” personality for his “before” one. He is married now, seemingly happily so, and is past the four years post-injury that he spent in his room alone, agoraphobic and depressed. He continues to deal with chronic pain with all the resources available. He tells us how he learned meditation and became adept at controlling his blood pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature.
Is this an uplifting story? To have been brutally robbed and beaten to the point where his brain would never recover, to have been unable to afford adequate testing, to have had to research and figure out on his own what was actually going on inside his own mind: from all that to being asked to tell his story via conferences, TV, and this book; loving numbers, finding joy in his family life, and being able to accept the reality in which he lives. When we read this story, we are witness to a man’s resilience and the human brain’s vulnerability as well as its surprising potential.
Losing Tim: A Memoir by Janet Burroway is a fascinating memoir by an accomplished novelist. Burroway’s grown son killed himself after being a military contractor who removed mines from war zones. The clues pile up as to what actually happened. A perhaps genetic tendency to depression may have played a role when very trying circumstances were just right, or just wrong.
We feel Burroway’s grief, we empathize with the challenges she experienced raising a boy whose views were so unliberal and thus so antithetical to her own beliefs. His love of guns was present very early, and it was a firearm he used to blow a hole in his head. Apparently he was no longer willing to live with the bad feelings that were accumulating within him: that he was part of a military industrial complex that had no integrity, that those he worked for were liars, that he was doing bad things in spite of his good intentions and the good he actually accomplished.
The writing is wonderful: a literary memoir and grief narrative by a writer who is unsentimental about the hardest experience a mother can go through. One of her older books, the novel Raw Silk, is also newly available as an ebook. Lovely, with hints of some of the autobiographical elements that would come to the fore in Losing Tim.
My Accidental Jihad: A Love Story by Krista Bremer took time to grow on me. Though written well, it was oddly too close to home for me to like it at first. Bremer’s description of her and her Libya-born Muslim husband’s courtship reminded me in many ways of my own first marriage. Soon the story became more interesting, especially when the couple travelled to the husband’s home and spent time with his family. Again, very familiar, yet absorbing. Then, towards the end, when Bremer, apparently always a spiritual seeker (though she hadn’t written much about that earlier in the book) found some personal version of Islam to suit her, I felt slightly disappointed at the way she seemed to twist her perspective to match that of her new family.