Kurt Eichenwald shares his experiences living with epilepsy in an electrifying narrative. Beginning with staring spells as a child and then later on generalized convulsions with loss of consciousness, he experiences as many as 4 seizures a week between the ages of 18 to 30. After that, the seizures become milder and less frequent. Coincidentally, his wife, father, and older brother are physicians and his mother a nurse.

Eichenwald describes his encounters with multiple neurologists, the best of them being Dr. Naarden. Unfortunately, other health professionals are portrayed as incompetent, careless, lacking empathy, or even unscrupulous. Multiple mishaps with prescribed anticonvulsant medications are chronicled – drug side effects, toxic levels of medicines, and a bout of bone marrow suppression. He suffers broken ribs, cuts and wounds, burns, and is even blanketed by deep snow due to seizures.

Eichenwald acknowledges the toll that epilepsy exacts on roommates, friends, and family. He admits to lots of fear and guilt. At one point, he seriously considers suicide by overdosing. Everyday life is hardly ever ordinary: “Now I was scared every day, checking where I stood for dangers, wondering when consciousness would disappear” (p157). A large section of his account details the discrimination he encounters at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in the early 1980’s. The school dismisses him because of his uncontrolled epilepsy. He successfully fights their decision and returns to graduate. Obtaining and holding a job is complicated by his illness, but Eichenwald becomes a journalist who works for the New York Times.


The psychological and emotional impact of living with a chronic and unpredictable illness is front and center. The author confesses, “So many of us with the condition [epilepsy] stay silent, fearful of the stigma that still attaches to the word. We distrust our own bodies and grapple with a terror of losing control of our brains” (p7). Not only must he confront his own fears and unique obstacles, but additionally he has to massage relationships with family and friends, deal with society’s misconceptions, unease, and discrimination, and navigate the medical care system. Given his pre-existing condition, worries about obtaining health insurance hover like a storm cloud.

He also struggles with the nature of memory, questioning the reliability of his recollections and often having to piece together the truth much like a detective might. His depictions of doctors tilt toward the negative. Arrogance emerges as the cardinal sin committed by physicians. But slowly and painfully, Eichenwald becomes an empowered patient and his own best advocate.

Primary Source

A Mind Unraveled: A Memoir


Ballantine Books

Place Published

New York



Page Count