A short, scary and ultimately redemptive recounting of the veteran journalist’s mental breakdown.
While researching his best-selling The Professor and the Madman (1998), the author came to fresh terms with the mystery of his own madness decades earlier, which began when he was a student at Oxford. Before embarking on an Arctic expedition, a rite of academic passage, he found himself engrossed in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. “When I woke five hours later, the whole world seemed to have changed, to have suddenly gone entirely and utterly mad,” he writes. Nothing made sense to him or looked familiar; if it looked vaguely familiar, it seemed threateningly strange. He uncharacteristically fell asleep for another eight hours and awoke to remember that he had an errand to run but had no idea where he was going, why, or even how to start his vehicle. “I swerved off down the road, for a destination unremembered, by way of a route unchartered,” he writes and then tells how he crashed his van 10 minutes later. Things eventually got better, so he didn’t tell anyone before leaving for the Arctic, where things then got life-threateningly worse. He survived, married (almost numbly catatonic at his wedding), launched his journalistic career, raised a family, and still suffered these spells with frightening regularity, a couple times a month, each lasting nine days. Almost by chance, he encountered a doctor who said, “I know what’s wrong with you; and I know how to fix it. Don’t worry anymore. You’ll soon by fine.” And so he was, though the electroshock treatments he received remain controversial and their effectiveness, inexplicable, and his research for his book, after initially providing him with a pat diagnosis, left him with more questions.
All the more effective through its matter-of-fact understatement, as it illuminates mysteries it can’t resolve.