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Author documents his struggle with madness in 'The Man with the Electrified Brain'

In "The Man with the Electrified Brain," author Simon Winchester documents his harrowing descent into insanity and his endeavor to reclaim himself. Here's an excerpt.


I was standing on the very edge of the crevasse, an edge sculpted smooth by years of blizzards and sunshine until it had been chamfered to a near-perfect glassiness, its surface like pure white obsidian.The edge arced down from the Greenland ice cap into a blue abyss of incalculable depth, out of which echoed the sounds of meltwater torrents raging far down at the base of the glacier. To slide down into the gash would be instantly and horribly fatal—and yet, in my strangely floating state of mind,detached as I was from the scientific inquiry that had brought me to the Arctic, I just then didn’t seem to care. It seemed so easy simply to slide away into the comfort of the deep. I wasn’t deliberately suicidal. I wasn’t frightened. It was that I didn’t appear to care what happened, so long as what was just then discommoding my mind could be somehow made to go away.


Some months before this expedition, I had begun to experience what would turn out to be a prolonged and debilitating disarrangement of my brain. As it happened, I survived the Greenland incident. But for the subsequent four years my life was ruled by onsets like this of an unpredictable malady, one that I have never fully understood. For decades afterwards—and still today, given the persistent mysteries of the brain and the attendant complications in mapping it—I have worried that the debilities of those years might return. To some bizarre degree I have blamed this fear, irrational though it may sound, purely and simply on the writings of Somerset Maugham.

I imagine some explanation is required, at least for that last bit. As well as for the reason why,after so long a period of silence—for all of what follows relates to troubles that began almost half a century ago—I eventually decided to come clean, as it were, about something over which I long felt a great deal of shame. That aspect of the tale has much to do with the attitude of my parents, both of whom died last year.

My mother and father, tough old greatest-generation Britons who lived well on into their nineties, belonged to a time and a class that disapproved mightily of any kind of mental infirmity. Indeed, almost any ailment, short of a bone snapped in a good game of rugby or a rib cracked by an encounter with a Hun, was regarded as a personal shortcoming, a sign of weakness, the occupation of malingerers and whiners. And while failings of the body were one thing, failings of the head—treated by a cadre of charlatans whom my father called trick-cyclists—were particularly to be derided, mocked, and denounced. Stuff and nonsense, my father would bellow on hearing of my troubles. Damn tomfoolery was his only diagnosis, Pull yourself together his only prescription. Now that there is no one left in the family seat to snort and to scorn, the process of revelation has become somewhat easier.

It was 1965, summertime in Oxford. I was in my second year as an undergraduate at St. Catherine’s College, reading geology. I was twenty—fit, well, and, so far as I can remember, perfectly happy, calm of mind, stable of temperament. I was performing reasonably well with my studies, got on well with my tutor, had a more than adequate social circle, enjoyed a degree of influence with some as secretary of the University Exploration Club, and I rowed crew, acting as number 6—the powerhouse, so called,since I was pretty well muscled in those days—in the college first rowing eight. All told, a typical Oxford life, laced with fair to middling achievement, and all (for a suburban boy of no special qualities or wealth) greatly appreciated, fully lived. I struggle now to recall, through the fog of years, any triggering reason—accident, stress, trauma—for what occurred on that unforgettable late June evening.

Academic work was one thing. But I also happened to be planning the forthcoming Greenland expedition. Maybe it was that, with all the worry, the labor, the responsibility, the late nights, which had something to do with what transpired. Indeed, my first year at Oxford had been far more dramatic than the one I was enjoying then. During that year I lived in Room 18 of Staircase 13. (In the curious escalier model of Oxford college accommodations, there are quads—courts across at Cambridge—around which are arched doorways leading to staircases up along which rooms are gathered, like leaves on some spiral tree.) Friends remarked idly on the likelihood of my eventually encountering some ill fortune, assigned as I was to the star-crossed Staircase 13. Such did in fact make a showing, but not for me.

It was the occupant of Room 13 on that thirteenth staircase, a man whom I knew slightly, and who one might suppose had been doubly jeopardized by ill-favored numbers, who became so afflicted by his studies that he killed himself. Exactly how, I cannot remember. Many said he employed his father’s Purdey. His death came quite soon after we had heard tell of an equally ghastly loss: another oarsmen much like me, though in his case a man quite unable to swim, was tossed into the River Cherwell one evening by a group of boisterously unthinking colleagues. He took too long to rise to the surface, and in the dark of the summer’s night he drowned. The police became involved; his parents established a memorial scholarship.

I was told of both happenings by my scout (a valet all Oxford students were assigned back then), a ponderously lugubrious and horse-faced man named Eric, as he brought in my morning teas on what turned out to be two grim mornings. Good morning, young master, he would sibilate, Gollum-like,as he drew open the curtains. It’s raining again; and a gentleman drowned his self last night. I have always supposed it just conceivable that these two tragedies had something to do with what later happened to so shatter my mind, a sort of doom in the air; but in all candor I doubt it.

By the summer of my second year, the dismaying events had been almost swallowed up into memory and college legend. I was no longer the excitable schoolboy of my first year, but had become subtly transmuted, as most university students are. I had become a young man known in particular for broad shoulders and a steady head, chosen by circumstance and by supporters as a leader, a planner. I flourished on hard work. I was serious without being solemn. I was a chap to be generally described by that most flattering of British shorthand: I was sound.

Expeditions were quite the thing, back in the sixties. Parties of intrepid-looking young undergraduates were about to set out that summer for unexplored places all over the planet. Our club—its existence went back a century or more—sent out about eight teams each year, students bound faraway to trek through jungles and deserts in the loneliest imaginable places, both to do good works and to seek out danger and good fun in equal measure. In our case we were six, all mountaineer friends,now due to depart in three weeks’ time for a hitherto quite unexplored corner of the ice cap of east Greenland.

There was good reason for the choice. My geology department had a long scientific association with the rocks of Greenland—my professor, a wiry, tungsten-tough Yorkshire man named Lawrence Wager, an early Everest climber and Arctic Old Hand, had made many discoveries there in the 1930s, one of which had made him famous enough in the rarefied circles of igneous petrology to win the chair at Oxford he had now held for the previous fifteen years. His particular claim to fame was his discovery of an extraordinary kind of rocky phenomenon known as a layered igneous intrusion, in flanks of jagged mountain now regarded as one of the great icons of the geological world, a place known as the Skaergaard.

Which brings me to the evening in late June, a Friday, when for me everything began to go so spectacularly awry.

As this was my second year at Oxford (of the three that all British undergraduates spend at university), I was living not in college, as in my first year, but out in town, in what formally are known as diggings but more generally are known as digs. I was now in a row house, Number 11, on Museum Road. The geology department was three minutes away; the Lamb and Flag, our local pub, thirty seconds away; the Eagle and Child—or the Bird and Baby, as it is known—another minute beyond that. So, pinioned between alcohol and academe—though not too much of either—I was generally regarded as being impeccably placed.

Furthermore, my landlady was no grizzled harpy, not one of the bilious creatures suffered by so many undergraduates who were living out, as it was put. Mine—she had inherited the town house from a long-dead uncle—was named Julie, she was twenty-three, and she cooked me breakfast most mornings. I was a little in love with Julie, as I recall, though she had a boyfriend down in Dorset, and I always supposed her a little out of my league. I made sheep’s eyes at her, and nothing more.

It is more than probable that she had boiled me eggs that summer’s morning. Much of the rest of that long-ago day is surmise. Most likely I had gone over to the Department for a while. Then there would have been a get-together, probably in the pub, with some of the expedition members. At the time we were arranging for our supplies—sleds, skis, cans of unfreezable margarine, pemmican, ice axes,maps—to be freighted to Copenhagen, where they would be loaded onto the Greenland-boundice breaker that was due to take us up north. There was interminable paperwork, customs declarations to be written, bonds to be paid, begging letters to be posted to suppliers from whom we still wanted materiél.

After all of this, I may well have cycled down to the river to go sculling for an hour or so in the evening—the river was now quite empty of the smooth carvel-built eights, the contests for which we had trained so furiously having taken place some weeks before—and few end-of-term rituals were more pleasant than being alone on a quiet summer river, with only the swans for company and the swish of the blades and the water rippling past the hull.

Some friends then came to tea: toast and black cherry jam and cream, and Lapsang souchong. It was always the same in my rooms: visitors knew what to expect and came happily.

They were all gone by eight, and I then settled down to work. I had a long essay to write—by hand in those days—on, as it happened, the still-unknown interior mysteries of the Skaergaard Intrusion, the details of which I—no doubt to the reader’s delight—have long forgotten. The endless June dusk allowed me to work unlit until ten, then I switched on my lamp and wrote until long after the pubs had closed and the streets had quieted. Like many, I heard midnight called out from a score of Oxford college clock towers, chiming in what Dorothy L. Sayers had so memorably called their friendly disagreement. And then I heard one o’clock; and then two; and finally, sometime after that hour, the essay was done.

I clipped it into my folder for my tutorial the following week. I readied myself for bed, plumped up my pillow, and picked up my newly bought copy—from Blackwell’s, that very morning—of Of Human Bondage. By the aforesaid villain of the piece: Somerset Maugham.

I began the volume—it weighed in at more than seven hundred pages, far too heavy for a casual bedtime read—with avid attention. I did so until I reached—unforgettably, and with the bookmark to be set in place for the next forty years or more—page 32. I fretted: poor Philip Carey, the novel’s thoroughly tested hero, now lame and lonely at the vicarage. What would happen next? But then it was three, and I knew I had a good deal to do the following day and so had to sleep. I put the book on the floor, said my nightly prayers—as I did back in those days, lying supine rather than kneeling at the bedside—and switched out the lamp.

When I woke five hours later, the whole world seemed to have changed, to have suddenly gone entirely and utterly mad.

That much was clear—to the extent that anything could be described as clear—from the moment I first opened my eyes. My tiny basement room was not wholly dark: dawn was filtering in through its scarlet curtains, and I could see the walls and the cheap paintings and posters with which I had decorated them. I could see the little sideboard, piled with the plates from last night’s tea, and there was the chair with my clothing thrown across its arm. My desk, with the essay papers in their folder,was laden with books. Closer to hand ticked my Westclox alarm, showing a little after eight, but with its ringer unset since this was a Saturday, no lectures on the schedule. On the door, my blue dressing gown hung from its hook, and beneath it the hem of my raincoat and the sleeve of my commoner’s gown, still to be worn were I to decide to dine in college hall. All of these things I could see, quite clearly—and yet all of it now looked, in some strange and menacing way, entirely unfamiliar.

The pictures, for instance, made no sense. I had taken them all for granted the day before—but now for some reason I felt bound to scrutinize them, compelled to subject them to a fierce analysis that revealed a million hitherto unseen imperfections and paradoxes—all of which quite terrified me as I lay huddled in my bed. One of the posters was a Van Gogh, the Bridge at Arles, and what the day before had been merely a congenial and comforting confection of color now had a horror to it. Somehow the bridge itself now looked broken, impossibly built. It looked as though a tiny Chinaman (as we said back in the day) was crossing it, and if so what was a Chinaman doing in France, and why was he wearing his coolie hat? The two poplars now looked like swirls of smoke, not trees; there was a cloud beside them that now looked more like a vulgar pat of cream cheese smeared onto the sky, and the reflections of the brickwork on the canal water were too straight to be real.

Excerpted from Simon Winchester’s "The Man with the Electrified Brain," published by Byliner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.