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A Brain Wider Than the Sky: A Migraine Diaryby Andrew Levy
Synopses & Reviews
With more than one in ten Americans — and more than one in five families — affected, the phenomenon of migraine is widely prevalent and often ignored or misdiagnosed. By his mid-forties, Andrew Levy's migraines were occasional reminders of a persistent illness that he'd wrestled with half his life, though he had not fully contemplated their physical and psychological influence on the individual, family, and society at large. Then in 2006 Levy was struck almost daily by a series of debilitating migraines that kept him essentially bedridden for months, imprisoned by pain and nausea that retreated only briefly in gentler afternoon light.
When possible, Levy kept careful track of what triggered an onset — the thin, taut pain from drinking a bourbon, the stabbing pulse brought on by a few too many M&M's — and in luminous prose recounts his struggle to live with migraines, his meticulous attempts at calibrating his lifestyle to combat and avoid them, and most tellingly, the personal relationship a migraineur develops — an almost Stockholm syndrome-like attachment — with the indescribable pain, delirium, and hallucinations.
Levy read about personalities and artists throughout history with migraine — Alexander Pope, Nietzsche, Freud, Virginia Woolf, even Elvis — and researched the treatments and medical advice available for migraine sufferers. He candidly describes his rehabilitation with the aid of prescription drugs and his eventual reemergence into the world, back to work and writing. An enthralling blend of memoir and provocative analysis, A Brain Wider Than the Sky offers rich insights into an illness whose effects are too often discounted and whose sufferers are too often overlooked.
It's no easy business to write about pain. Memoirs of illness and injury too frequently end up either as proud testimonies of endurance or self-indulgent tomes. Andrew Levy's beautiful memoir, "A Brain Wider Than the Sky," is welcome relief. A professor of English at Butler University, Levy is also an accomplished writer, who here turns his exacting gaze inward: He invites us to... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) accompany him on a harrowing descent as he changes from a man who has suffered from occasional headaches into the victim of an unremitting, four-month-long, life-altering migraine. Inevitably, when Levy is confronted with this disorienting and disabling pain, he is driven to wonder why he is afflicted. Happily for his readers, he does not ask, "Why me?" but rather, "Why any of us?" What follows is an affecting, readable account of the pain of migraine and the weird wonder of it. Levy seamlessly glides from the experience of his own suffering to broader neurological and historical realms, including a number of jaw-dropping anecdotes about migraine and its treatment. Levy guides us through a range of theories regarding the causes of migraine, including Sigmund Freud's laughable hypothesis that his daughter's first menstruation gave him "a migraine from which I thought I would die." Levy also includes descriptions of patients who endured wacky and often violent attempts at treatment, such as the 17th-century intellectual Lady Anne Conway, who allowed her brother to cut open her head. Levy asserts that such a preposterous-sounding cure simply reflects the victim's desperation. Levy's prose shines most in his descriptions of the illness. Sometimes these moments are quietly gorgeous, as when he writes of how he feels when a migraine lifts: "just an abundant sense of thankfulness that the attack has receded. A few distant electrical wires sizzling in puddles at the edge of the flood, perhaps, dogs sniffing in curiosity at the sparks and at the imitation of life provided by the jittery cables, but I'm over here, standing on my rooftop as the waters recede, as the front steps and the lawn reappear." Sometimes the narrative voice is witty and sharp: "And then a throb hits you on the left side of the head so hard that your head bobs to the right. You look for the referee counting you down to ten. There's no way that came from inside your head, you think. That's no metaphysical crisis. God just punched you in the side of the face." For all its beautiful description and compelling research, the book's poignant center lies in the fact that Levy's pain is compounded by some nameless guilt. "The idea that the pain exists to make a point, probably a moral one, is embedded deep in us," he writes. But more devastating than any existential sense of moral complicity is the way in which his illness affects his wife and the couple's 4-year-old son, Aedan. Levy lies on the couch one early morning, stricken, and the boy whisks into the room. "From an early age," Levy writes, "Aedan has understood that he had to negotiate with the headache, as if it were a third party." He guiltily plunks Aedan in front of the television when faced with child care duties. The everyday noises of a household are excruciating to a migraining head, so Levy isolates himself to feel less awful and then feels awful for being an absent father and partner: "A family of three starts to become a family of two," he explains. This unflinching self-scrutiny is what elevates "A Brain Wider Than the Sky" beyond many less successful memoirs of illness. As readers, we're caught in Levy's conundrum. There is no reason for him to feel responsible for his pain, let alone guilty for it. But blameless as he may be, the irrefutable reality is that Levy's suffering is not his alone, and the consequences of that fact are where the heart of this fine book lies. Reviewed by Christine Montross, who is the author of 'Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality From the Human Anatomy Lab', Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Exploring and illuminating migraine suffering in the way Andrew Solomon's "The Noonday Demon" revealed the dynamics of depression, this memoir offers Levy's evocative personal story relating to this commonly misdiagnosed illness.
About the Author
Andrew Levy is the author of several books and a writer whose work has appeared in Harper's Magazine, Dissent, Best American Essays, and other publications. He lives in Indianapolis.
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