A trauma is a trauma is a trauma. Or is it? Over the past decade, the words “trauma” and “traumatic” have been used so profligately and have entered our cultural discourse to such an extent that they have almost lost their depth-charge, the reactive implosion of psychic damage to which they were originally meant to refer. Everyone in this era is traumatized by everything, from inappropriate sexual come-ons to the use of language in novels by such literary greats as Joseph Conrad and Mark Twain now considered inflammatory in its assumptions about class, race or privilege. (Hence: trigger warnings, safe spaces and microaggressions.) The late novelist and critic V. S. Naipaul saw himself in an epochal battle against the cloudy and clichéd thinking to which this kind of easy resort to the dichotomy of the abused versus the abusers is conducive, replete with right-thinking but ultimately wishful ideas about the ways in which power and human nature interact.
And then along comes a book, like Kurt Eichenwald’s “A Mind Unraveled,” that makes you rethink not only the concept of trauma but its potential impact — the ways in which trauma can work not only to weaken but to strengthen the character of the person who has experienced it. His remarkable memoir reads, unaccountably, like the most hair-raising of psychological thrillers, despite the fact that the saga of Eichenwald’s life as an epileptic from his late teens up until the present, when he has become a prizewinning journalist, would not seem to contain the potential for so much suspense. He grasps the gritty issues surrounding his own very real trauma and often horrific experiences — from enduring frequent convulsions and losses of consciousness to the threat of being thrown out of college to losing jobs — with so little self-pity and so much regard for the compensations the world has to offer even to those afflicted as he is. It’s a quality that sets this book vividly apart from other memoirs that deal with suffering. For anyone who wants to understand the complex dynamic between environmental battering and the sort of inner strength that often goes by the name of resilience, this is the book to turn to.
New York Times | October 15, 2018