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Kurt Eichenwald’s ‘A Mind Unraveled’: The long, painful road back to happiness

This memoir crackles with tension something like that of a mystery thriller, as a man struggles to find life and contentment despite the difficulties and stigmas associated with epilepsy.

A Mind Unraveled

By Kurt Eichenwald

Ballantine Books. 392 pp. $28

Reviewed by John Reinan

Kurt Eichenwald has written one of the best thrillers I’ve read in years, yet there are no detectives, no corpses, no guns or knives.

A Mind Unraveled tells the frightening tale of Eichenwald’s struggle with epilepsy, which began to affect him in high school and worsened dramatically as he entered college. For the next decade and more, his life was a nightmare of uncontrolled seizures, uncaring doctors, and uncomprehending onlookers. He almost died several times as frequent seizures brought on a decline in his physical and mental health. A doctor misprescribed his medication, leading to a toxic blood disease. Psychologists called him crazy.

He was kicked out of Swarthmore College because the administration viewed him as a monster from whom the other students should be protected. He believes Ralph Nader, champion of the underdog, fired him because of his epilepsy. Even his own father, a renowned pediatrician, was skeptical and unfeeling toward his son’s plight.

The book is intensely personal — how could it not be? — as Eichenwald details the trauma he suffered and the steps he took to try to lead a normal life. He couldn’t take a seat at a bar; he might suddenly topple from the stool. He taught close friends how to respond to his seizures. (By the way, most of what you may know about seizures is wrong. Don’t put a spoon in the person’s mouth.)

Unable to drive, he could live only in cities with widely available mass transit. Even then, he recounts being assaulted by thugs while lying defenseless on a Chicago train platform after collapsing in a grand mal seizure.

Eichenwald, an accomplished journalist and author of several best-selling books, builds tension effectively throughout his narrative. As each outrageous turn of fortune worsens his fate, his indignation — and the reader’s — builds. Determined not to become a victim of his disorder, and of society’s misunderstanding of it, Eichenwald transforms into an aggressive protagonist in his own story, defying doctors and employers, realizing that only he can effectively advocate for himself.

Yet he’s generous in his praise of those who did help him along the way: college friends, a handful of perceptive doctors and medical professionals, and, finally, his own parents, who at last realized their son needed help in his lonely battle.

In the end, he won. With unimaginable fortitude, he pieced together his life, finding love and a successful career. In the book’s final chapter, he has a drink with his son at the same table in the same restaurant where, at a low point decades before, he’d imagined himself one day doing just that.

“If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t want to change a thing,” he writes, “because my trauma forced me to confront myself, to discover who I really am. To be happy.”

It’s a happiness he’s earned every moment of.

This review originally appeared in the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune .