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Agony and Insight: It's All in His Head

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By Christine Montross
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 20, 2009

A BRAIN WIDER THAN THE SKY

A Migraine Diary

This Story

By Andrew Levy

Simon & Schuster. 289 pp. $25

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 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.

Montross is the author of "Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality From the Human Anatomy Lab."



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