The first chapter of this memoir consists of two words: "I exaggerate." The narrator then tells us the story of her childhood and early adult experiences as an epileptic. After having her first seizure, at the age of ten, she spends a month at a special Catholic school in Topeka, Kansas, where the nuns teach epileptic children to fall without hurting themselves. This falling may or may not be literal; it is certainly symbolically apt.

During adolescence, Lauren begins lying, stealing, and faking seizures to get attention. She reveals that she has developed Munchausen's Syndrome, whose sufferers are "makers of myths that are still somehow true, the illness a conduit to convey real pain" (88). A neurologist, Dr. Neu, performs surgery severing Lauren's corpus callosum, effectively dividing her brain in half and markedly alleviating the seizure disorder.

Later she attends a writer's workshop where she begins an affair with a married man, a writer much older than she. After it ends badly, she starts going to Alcoholics Anonymous (although she does not drink) and tells her story with such authenticity that when she later confesses that she is NOT an alcoholic, no-one believes her, dismissing her true story as denial. The memoir ends both with her recognition of the value of narrating and with a silent fall to the snowy ground, as the nuns taught her to do, in the knowledge that the sense of falling (rather than the material certainty of landing) is all that is finally, reliably, real.


Even while she draws us into a vivid account of lived experience, Slater's narrator keeps reminding us that she may be unreliable. This book is concerned with what Slater calls "narrative truth," as opposed to "historical truth," and as such, neither fiction nor (quite) non-fiction, is both disconcerting, even annoying, and illuminating. Some events seem obviously spurious, like the "Startle and Shake" technique that Lauren's mother learns can end a seizure. It is so violent that trying it in a supermarket gets her arrested for child abuse. (On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that this bit is true.)

Other episodes are explicitly acknowledged as false: Lauren has a seizure at a funeral and falls into the grave. She then confesses that, although she had gone to the funeral and imagined falling in, she had not actually done so. The image of her struggling up out of the grave, presented as a kind of birth, is nonetheless an apt image of the beginning of her adulthood, and especially of her escape from her mother.

This interplay of the literal/factual with the metaphorical/fictional is made even more vertiginous by Slater's suggestion that epilepsy affects the memory. Is she simply misremembering, a "poor historian"? Surely memory always is partly reinvention and reconstruction as well as retrieval? Distinguishing between her "emotional memory" and her "factual memory," Slater invites us to reconsider the fundamental assumptions of the memoir genre, and even of all narrative self-disclosure. "The neural mechanism that undergirds the lie is the same neural mechanism that helps us make narrative. Thus all stories . . . are at least physiologically linked to deception" (164).

This undermining of the reader's security has proven controversial. But one must remember that the book's subtitle is "a metaphorical memoir." This is the point: we should not take Slater literally. Just as a metaphor conjures up something not present in order to tell us more about the present object or concept, so Slater creates a story and a condition that cast light on broader realities--those of difficult childhood, of being a patient, of suffering from mental illness (Slater's actual clinical depression is documented in Prozac Diary, annotated in this data base).

The division that results from a severed corpus callosum is also a metaphor for the separations between childhood and adulthood, literal and figurative truths, knowing and imagining, even mind and brain. The reality of experience is, for Slater, so "subtle and nuanced" she could never convey it with literal description. "Is metaphor in memoir, in life, an alternate form of honesty," she asks, "or simply an evasion?" (192). Factually verifiable or not, there is much that is true in this story, and much that is thought-provoking about the experience of growing up with a chronic illness.


Random House

Place Published

New York



Page Count