Christy Brown – My Left Foot

My Left Foot is best known now for the film version. Daniel Day-Lewis played Christy Brown, famously staying in role as the adolescent and young adult with cerebral palsy even during breaks in filming.
But originally My Left Foot was Christy Brown’s first published book, to be followed later by Down All The Days, and other novels and poetry. Although it concerns the struggle of a child to find means of communication and then expression, despite the difficulties imposed by an athetoid cerebral palsy, this is much more than an encounter with a neurological condition, an ‘illness narrative’. It … Read more...

William Fiennes – The Music Room

William Fiennes is no stranger to ways in which the human body can go wrong. He had severe Crohn’s disease in his early twenties, and has told of having a colostomy (in Beneath The Skin 2018). In The Music Room he tells how his brother’s epilepsy affected every part of his childhood. To this extent he tells a similar story to Colin Grant (in A Smell of Burning 2016).

The social backdrop could not be more contrasting. Whereas Colin Grant was the North London son of a Windrush migrant, William Fiennes is the son of a Lord, living in a … Read more...

Chris Packham – Asperger’s and Me

For a gripping insight into what it might be like to have Asperger’s syndrome, watch Asperger’s and Me. Chris Packham is a familiar face from nature broadcasting on TV, where his encyclopaedic knowledge adds hugely to each programme’s value. That knowledge of natural history resulted from his boyhood enthusiasms, his escape from difficult human interactions, and his focus on factual reality. These things in turn are part of his Asperger’s.

Chris was not diagnosed until 40s, but already knew in his teens that he was ‘a little bit weird’. In his childhood his enthusiasms were total, taking over his … Read more...

Patrick Kane – Being bionic

Patrick Kane is 21 as I write this – so he has had 20 years’ experience of functioning without a right leg, and with various other amputations in both his upper limbs. (As a toddler he had sepsis as a result of a meningococcal infection.) In his article ‘Being Bionic’ (Guardian LongReads 15/11/18) about the benefits of new prosthetic technology, he makes it completely clear that his priority in any prosthetic is not looks, but function. Indeed, he welcomes the opportunity to customise his prosthesis to look as bionic, and non-human, as possible. By choosing a more bionic and different … Read more...

Colin Grant – A Smell of Burning: a Memoir of Epilepsy

Colin Grant’s memoir of his younger brother is a triumph, vividly showing how epilepsy contributed to that relationship’s particular flavour. Like the epileptic fits themselves, his brother appears in the narrative at intermittent moments, suddenly bringing a personal intensity to the more dispassionate discussion of the condition. And in some ways Christopher is like a ghost, not fully present, with very little to say in the story. For he, and other family members, are very reluctant to talk about epilepsy, even to Colin, the medical student in the family.

A Smell of Burning is much more than a memoir of … Read more...

Maggie O’Farrell – I Am, I Am, I Am.

What an amazing book! Seventeen brushes with death, and at the end of it I felt how wonderful it is to be alive! Maggie O’Farrell has created an emotional narrative experience through the occasions when she contemplated death, occasions that included her own childhood encephalitis, near drowning (twice), road traffic accidents (twice), severe perinatal haemorrhage, miscarriage (several), and so on. Perhaps we all have near-misses and are unaware of them – such as walking through the site of a terrorist attack an hour (or two weeks, or two years) before it happened. But the thoughts that arise if we become … Read more...

Naoki Higashida – Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight

The Reason I Jump was the book of a 13 year old, but Naoki Higashida’s new book, Fall Down Seven Times Get Up Eight is that of an accomplished writer, written when the author was in his late teens and early 20s. What makes the accomplished writing in this book all the more remarkable is that the author has a severe sensori-motor processing and communication impairment, requiring a QWERTY pointerboard to painstakingly spell out the Japanese letters for his words. It is hard to imagine from the skillful poems and reflective pieces in this book that the author finds it … Read more...

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young – The Woman Who Changed Her Brain

It is unusual to find a description of what it feels like to have a cognitive impairment. Unsurprisingly, published narratives are the products of our world’s wordsmiths, but there are few published narratives by those who find it difficult to understand relationships between words. For the first 25 years of her life Barbara Arrowsmith-Young had severe difficulties in processing symbols and meanings, a semantic aphasia which caused extreme frustration with many aspects of learning, despite her phenomenal memory. Although this book is mostly about what she does in her school to help children and adults remedy their cognitive deficits, the … Read more...

Naoki Higashida – The Reason I Jump

Naoki’s books are mind-boggling. David Mitchell refers to the books by people with autism as ‘autism-witness texts’, and all of Naoki’s books come into that category. However, Naoki’s first book, The Reason I Jump, is exceptional in that it was written when he was 13, even as he was working on his verbal skills and trying to develop communication. As he writes to the ‘neurotypical’ reader, “have a nice trip through our world”. Each sentence was transmitted via his alphabet board, on which Naoki points to the letters that spell out Japanese hiragana characters. This is a laborious process, … Read more...