Best-selling author Simon Winchester has a new e-book single out this week, The Man with the Electrified Brain. It's about his descent into madness more than 40 years ago after suffering from a rare dissociative disorder.
Throughout his career as a renowned foreign correspondent and best-selling author with a worldwide following, Winchester has never disclosed his affliction. But with the publication of The Man with the Electrified Brain, Winchester for the first time reveals the details of his struggles in vivid detail. Each week, Thin Reads conducts interviews with well-known authors of e-book singles and publishes them on a special section of its website. This week, Thin Reads caught up with Winchester and conducted an email interview. The abbreviated interview is below; see the full Q&A here.
Thin Reads: What made you decide to write your story now about your terrifying descent into near madness when you were a young man? The events you described so eloquently happened more than 40 years ago.
Many years ago, on a flight across the Atlantic, I found myself sitting next to the head of MIND, a British mental-health charity. We talked about many things related to illness and therapy, and I ventured to him -- but privately -- that I had had six sessions of electro-shock therapy. He insisted that one day I should write about it, "to strip away some of the stigma and the terror", as he put it. But I never did, in large part because my parents had been so hostile to my even having sought treatment for an illness they both decried as 'invented'. But then my parents died in 2011; and when, quite by chance, Amy Loyd at Byliner said that she had heard that I had once been unwell, and wondered if I might be willing to write about my experiences, I remembered the conversation on the plane -- and thought that it actually might be helpful to some people if I recounted my experiences, all those years ago.
Thin Reads: When you had your first episode, why did you wait a year to seek medical help? Your description of what you were experiencing at the time was absolutely terrifying.
It may sound utterly implausible -- but back in the 1960s, in Britain, (and at least, in my family circle) one went to the doctor only in the gravest of life-threatening emergencies. I had been taught both not to trouble him and so be seen as a malingering nuisance, and that to go to him was some kind of admission of personal weakness. Most physical illnesses could be taken care of by a couple of aspirins; most mental illnesses could be sent packing by going out and giving the garden a vigorous digging. That was what was believed at home -- and to judge by what colleagues told me at school, not in my home alone. And there was something else: I was just too terrified and catatonic to do anything -- like go to the doctor -- while the event was in progress, but then once it was over, I was too happy to have recovered, and too confident (in the early days) that it would never return, that I plain forgot about taking medical advice. It was only when a pattern had begun to develop that I went to the doctor -- though I was always very careful not to tell my parents, who would have been (with no pun intended) shocked.
Thin Reads: Who made the decision for you to have electroconvulsive therapy? Were you angry at that decision?
My wife made the decision. She told me the other day that signing the commitment papers was one of the most heart-rending decisions she had ever had to take in her life. And we were both in our early twenties, she reminded me -- not much more than children, having to make decisions like this.
Thin Reads: What convinced you that the Kindle Single format was the best platform to tell this story? Did you consider a long-form book or were the facts and details lodged too far and deep in the past for you to recover accurately?
I have pretty nearly total recall of the events, so there was no question of having to dig too deep for a full-length book. (I might add that my wife of the time recently confirmed almost all of my memories, which was gratifying. I always had worried that my recollection of some of the more florid events -- such as my escape from the asylum during that winter -- might have been somewhat distorted by time; but it seems that they were not, and that impressions had been just too vivid.) The length which was suggested by Byliner, of around 12,000 words, seems to fit perfectly with the temper of the experience, and to be the right length to offer a proper narrative of the symptoms, the context, the effects, the cure and aftermath.