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Book Review: A Brain Wider than the Sky

March 17th, 2010 · No Comments

I play tennis, but I’m no Rafa Nadal! I cook spaghetti, but I’m no Gordon Ramsay! And while I write about pain, I’m no Andrew Levy, author of A Brain Wider than the Sky, a memoir of his 20+ years of experiences with migraines.

It is a spellbinding, creative work. His power as a writer lets even those of us without migraines into the private experience of severe headaches.

September: there is no line between the migraine and worrying about the migraine as one lies awake at five in the morning. There is no difference between the first pinpricks of aura and the first gray rays of dawn, either, since one looks like the other, and since the latter seems to cause the former.

The pain will come if it wants to come. I can feel the shuffling under my brow, the blood and the nerves meditating, a little rush, a little constriction. It almost feels as if they’re considering whether to make a commitment.

It starts from a point somewhere and pulsates, enlarges. By the third or fourth throb, a new pain appears, something after the throbs, like the afterimage on a television, a glow that grows fainter, until the next pulsation renews it. There’s a density now, a consistency. I get up, and while the rest of my body feels normal, my head feels as if it is shedding pieces as it rises, like the trail of a comet.

Levy also relates the impact to himself and his family of his chronic disability. His preschool son often scoped out the scene each morning to see if the “interloper” was present. “Aedan has understood that he had to negotiate with the headache, as if it were a third party.”

Levy explores the writings of other migraineurs – Freud, Virginia Woolf, Nietzsche – and analyzes the relation between migraine and creativity. He relates his own dance with treatment, and avoiding it. He also summarizes newer theories about the causes of migraine, and what’s on the horizon for remedies.

My favorite parts of the book were Levy’s descriptions of his own experiences – breathtakingly vivid and fresh:

The beep of the microwave oven as it is tapped, 3, 2, 1, start, producing a corresponding stab above the left eye, a gentle one, tap, tap, tap, tap, each a fraction of a second after the corresponding microwave beep, the way that thunder just follows a near lightning strike.

Some descriptions were funny, “And headaches: I gathered a collection of small ones, the way other people keep figurines.”

A Brain Wider than the Sky is a must-read for anyone with migraines or any pain condition. But I think any reader who likes inspired writing will love this book. Levy’s auras are at times, “a transporting sensation of awe, of joy, of clarity.” These also well describe his book!

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