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Excerpt from A Mind Unraveled by Kurt Eichenwald, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Mind Unraveled

A Memoir

by Kurt Eichenwald

A Mind Unraveled by Kurt Eichenwald X
A Mind Unraveled by Kurt Eichenwald
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2018, 416 pages
    Oct 2019, 432 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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Print Excerpt

Chapter One

A Christmas tree sparkled silver in front of me. My frequent, sudden sleepiness returned as I wondered how long I had been standing there. Or had I been walking? I felt odd, in a way difficult to describe - ­not sure where I was, not fully connected to my thoughts.

I glanced around the room. Gold tinsel hung on the walls of a living room stuffed with older furniture. Windows peered at a neighbor's house wreathed with colored lights. Nighttime. I remembered - ­this was a party thrown by kids from my girlfriend's high school. Across the room, I saw Mari Cossaboom, whom I had been dating for more than a year, chatting with classmates. I strolled up to them, trying to conceal my confusion with a veneer of confidence.

It was 1978, Christmas vacation of my senior year in high school. My blank out didn't scare me; such episodes occurred sporadically, and family and friends greeted them with shrugs. Even my parents saw nothing amiss - ­lots of people stared, they assured me. But I wondered, Did they really? Did others just drift away and wander around in a daze?

At least I thought I wandered, because when I became aware of my surroundings after an episode, I believed I was someplace I hadn't been earlier. But a friend of mine who witnessed one of these waking trances said no, I hadn't moved. Once, I realized a classmate was in front of me, and I had no idea how he had appeared there. He asked what I was doing with my hand. I looked down and saw my fingers grasping my shirt. He told me I had been picking at it. I had no memory of doing so.

The staring spells had worsened the previous summer when I attended a Harvard University program for high school debaters. I found myself reconnecting to consciousness with a feeling of confusion far more often than in the past. When I returned home, I asked my mom to set up an appointment with my pediatrician. She agreed but again told me not to worry - ­everybody stared.

I described the problem to my physician but failed to mention the sleepiness or disassociation that followed a staring episode. I didn't consider those to be symptoms, much less important. He confidently told me I was fine; lack of sleep and too much coffee were the culprits. I accepted the diagnosis, cut back on caffeine, and tried to get more rest, at least as best a teenager could.

If someone had suggested these spells were seizures, I would have laughed it off, since I bought into the falsehoods about epilepsy. In the uninformed popular imagination, a seizure meant a body convulsed by violent spasms, frothing at the mouth and swallowing a tongue as emergency workers loaded the sufferer into an ambulance for a desperate rush to the hospital. My experiences were nothing like that.

It would be stretching things to say my parents should have known what was happening, but they were better versed in medical issues than most. My father, Heinz Eichenwald, was a world-­renowned specialist in pediatric infectious disease, though he spent more time in academia than seeing patients. Growing up in Dallas, I felt proud of his influence on medicine. He seemed to be chairman of pediatrics departments everywhere - ­University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, Children's Medical Center, Parkland. For one month every year during the Vietnam War, he traveled to Saigon, where he helped run a children's hospital. He was close to Albert Sabin, the developer of the oral polio vaccine, whom I called Uncle Al, and a Nobel Prize winner even dropped by our house.

My mother, Elva Eichenwald, was a nurse who knew more practical medicine than my father. They had met at New York Hospital and married in 1951. My sister, Kathie, came along in 1955, followed three years later by my brother, Eric. In 1960, while pregnant with me, my mom was stuck with a used hypodermic needle and contracted hepatitis. Her doctors advised that the pregnancy might lead to death or complications and ordered her to bed. When I was born in 1961, doctors found me healthy, but my mother wondered decades later if hepatitis had played a role in causing my epilepsy.

Excerpted from A Mind Unraveled by Kurt Eichenwald. Copyright © 2018 by Kurt Eichenwald. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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