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“The mind can be a fragile gift. Sometimes it fails us, and often when we need it most. Happily, mine appears to be working reliably now, and so I am perhaps as able as most to confront and cope with the madness of the moment. But during a lengthy period some fifty years ago, my mind unexpectedly broke down.”
These words, from the new introduction to Scribd’s reissue of Simon Winchester’s The Man with the Electrified Brain, are all the more insightful and resonant now as a historic pandemic tests the mental and physical health of people on every continent. The bestselling author understands this better than most, having nearly lost the battle for his own sanity as a young man. How he triumphed, and by what unexpected means—told in this rare and riveting piece of memoir from Winchester—should be a light in the dark for us all, a reminder that from crises can come rebirth.
Winchester has never shied away from big, even enormous, topics: the Atlantic Ocean, the Krakatoa volcanic eruption, early exploration of the wilderness that would become the United States. His beloved bestseller The Professor and the Madman, about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, explored the workings of a brilliant yet troubled mind. In The Man with the Electrified Brain, Winchester takes on arguably his most daunting subject yet: one of nature’s greatest and most enduring mysteries, the human brain.
As a geology student in his second year at Oxford, Winchester was known as a young man of even temper and keen intellect, until one June morning when he woke to find himself “changed with dreadful suddenness into another being altogether.” For a period of nine days, he lived in immobilizing fear. Everyday items—familiar paintings, a pile of books, his own robe hanging from a hook—became objects of horror; the world lost color, purpose, all sense and safety. An attempt to drive ended in a crash, and he abandoned the vehicle. When the episode finally passed, he returned to his former self, presuming that what had happened to him was a fluke. It wasn’t. The episode repeated itself at unpredictable and dangerous intervals for four years and very nearly caused the author’s death while he was on an expedition in the Arctic.
What was wrong with him? Where could he find help? Would he spend the rest of his life anticipating the return of these mental blackouts? With the urgency of a whodunit, Winchester describes the coming and going of these terrifying dissociative states and the chance encounter that led to a controversial treatment—electroconvulsive therapy—that may or may not have cured him once and for all.
Written by a master storyteller, The Man with the Electrified Brain locates that finest of lines between sanity and insanity and is Winchester’s most consequential and deeply personal work yet.