Pain Without Meaning
Memories of the mother of all headaches.


Jan|Feb 2010 contents
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All Things Ornamental



INTERVIEW Ben Yagoda G’91 on Memoir: A History

REVIEW Only a really bad headache? A Brain Wider Than the Sky

PHOTOGRAPHY Force of memory. The Art of Caring

EXCERPT Istanbul to West Philadelphia. Cultures in Counterpoint

EXCERPT An accidental family. What Else But Home

REVIEW Seeds of selfhood. The Smile at the Heart of Things


A singular first-person sampler.

After a recent spate of memoirs by Penn alumni crossed the Gazette’s transom, we decided to take a look, via excerpts and reviews, at a modest cross-section, encompassing a broad range of styles and subject matter.

Starting off, and bringing it all together, is an interview with Ben Yagoda, author of Memoir: A History—which is exactly what it sounds like, yet somehow more. The memoirs themselves range from a life spent with migraines, to the life journey of a museum curator, to the cultural odyssey of a Turkish-born Jew who came to the United States as a young man, to Michael Rosen’s What Else But Home: Seven Boys and an American Journey Between the Projects and the Penthouse, whose subtitle gives a pretty good hint of the content. We’re also including some striking images from the “Remembering” chapter of The Art of Caring: A Look at Life through Photography, compiled by Cynthia Goodman.



NEW Gazette blog:





A Migraine Diary

By Andrew Levy Gr’91
Simon & Schuster, 2009. $25.

By Maureen Corrigan | It would be a funny story if it didn’t involve intense pain, too many drugs, and a week of missed classes. The morning after I finished reading Andrew Levy’s eloquent new book on migraines, A Brain Wider Than The Sky, I was driving my 11-year-old daughter to school. I was thinking about the book and, particularly, about Levy’s vivid descriptions of “aura”—the ocular illusion of ripples of light that can sometimes precede a migraine attack. Like Levy, I suffer from migraines, although my attacks are much more sporadic than his. Just as I was thinking to myself, “I haven’t experienced a migraine-with-aura in a few years,” the inevitable happened. But I travel prepared. At the first red light, I dug an Imitrex tablet out of my wallet and popped it in my mouth, dry. Migraine halted. Then I made a very bad mistake.

My daughter asked about the pill I had just swallowed and I explained what it was, saying, “Isn’t that funny? I’m reading a book about migraines and now I just got one.” Minutes later she hopped out of the car and went into her school. That evening, she came home with a stomachache, the way her migraines have started since she began getting them last year. After five days of staying home from school and two frantic office visits to the pediatric neurologist, she was admitted for an overnight stay at a nearby hospital so that she could have anti-migraine drugs administered intravenously. The attack eventually weakened and faded away, but, for the foreseeable future, my daughter is taking a migraine preventative drug twice a day and I’m keeping my mouth shut.

Migraines aren’t “contagious,” but as many people who suffer from them know, sometimes just thinking about the dread possibility seems to invite one into your head. So, be forewarned, migraine sufferers: you might want to have an Imitrex/cold washcloth/darkened room/Migranol inhaler/or acupuncturist at the ready if you dare to read A Brain Wider Than The Sky. But it’s worth the risk.

Levy has written an engrossing jumble of a book that’s part survey of the history of migraines throughout the centuries, part poetic meditation on the often-surreal experience of enduring this mother-of-all-headaches, and part personal migraine “diary.”

Levy’s migraines began when he was in his twenties, but they really hit full hurricane force two decades later. The inspirational “trigger” for A Brain Wider Than The Sky was a life-altering stretch that occurred when he was 43, during which time he endured migraines almost daily for four months. An English professor and director of the Writer’s Studio at Butler University in Indianapolis, Levy describes the texture of his days during this siege with wit and precision:

“On the bad mornings, I might have to move around on all fours. On the good mornings, I would go to work and run errands, but I was intermittently dangerous: is a migraineur behind the wheel of a car as impaired as a drunk, a cell phone user, some otherwise preoccupied soul behind the same wheel, or not impaired at all? There’s no Breathalyzer for migraine, no machine that can measure the intensity of your attack, but this is what you’re probably thinking, as you make that turn: am I really supposed to pull over for a headache?

Migraines, as Levy insists throughout this book, are undervalued as an affliction. Sure, a migraineur (such an elegant word for such a wretched condition!) may feel as though an Infernal Hand is piercing his or her temple with a dull chisel, but still, it’s only a really bad headache. Levy recalls that his wife was sympathetic about his long retreats under the covers, his abrupt disappearances from cocktail parties, and his essential absence from their marriage … except for those times when she was understandably fed up. In a poignant scene in the opening pages of the book, Levy’s two-year-old son comes upon him in the throes of a migraine attack, prone on the floor of the nursery. The toddler wraps his arms and legs octopus-style around Levy—the child, for that moment, being father to the man. Migraines, as Levy confesses through these intimate flashbacks, mess up the family dynamic, not to mention one’s work and social life. Levy’s attacks gradually diminished in force and frequency thanks, in part, to some changes in his diet. The good and the bad news about migraines (and the reason they rank low on the scale of medical horrors) is, as Levy says in the most memorable phrase in his book, that they’re “pain without meaning.”

As befits a cerebral academic (no pun intended), Levy finds a degree of solace during the most intense season of his attacks by taking the long view and ticking off the famous migraine sufferers throughout history. The illustrious company of the damned includes Sigmund Freud, Ulysses S. Grant, Joan Didion, Virginia Woolf, Alexander Pope, and the medieval mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, whose spiritual visions suspiciously fit the profile of a migraine attack: the spectral lights, the feeling of disconnection from one’s own body, the eventual elation after the attack has passed. The title of Levy’s book comes from an especially blasphemous poem by Emily Dickinson, who, as far as anyone knows, did not suffer from migraines. But no matter. When you’re looking at the world through the distortions of migraine, as Levy describes, all is headache.

Maureen Corrigan Gr’87 is the book critic for the NPR program Fresh Air.

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Last modified 12/22/09