April 21, 2015

Oliver Sacks writes about Spalding Gray's brain injury and suicide.

Gray was in a car accident, in 2001, that drove bone fragments into his right frontal lobe and, it seems, changed him profoundly:
It was while he was in the hospital in Ireland following his hip surgery, he told me, that he finalized a deal to sell the old house. He later came to feel that he was “not himself” at the time, that “witches, ghosts, and voodoo” had “commanded” him to do it....
Three years later, he was still obsessing about selling the house. Asked if he had other recurrent thoughts:
He said yes: he often thought about his mother and the first twenty-six years of his life. It was when he was twenty-six that his mother, who had been intermittently psychotic since he was ten, fell into a self-torturing, remorseful state, focussed on the selling of her family house. Unable to endure her torment, she had committed suicide....


There was a brief, dramatic break in Spalding’s rumination just a week before he came to see us, when he had to have surgery because one of the titanium plates in his skull had shifted. The operation took four hours, under general anesthesia. Coming to from the anesthesia and for about twelve hours afterward, Spalding was his old self, talkative and full of ideas. His rumination and hopelessness had vanished—or, rather, he now saw how he could use the events of the past two years creatively in one of his monologues. But by the next day this brief excitement or release had passed.
Much more at the link, including explanations of the brain, Gray's continued "problems with rumination," his sense that he was "destined to follow my mother in a sort of self-hypnosis," and his efforts at new monologues, which didn't, like his old monologues "integrate" "very negative events." Now, he said, the monologues only aggravated the negativity, because he had lost "the use of irony.”
He said that his mind was filled with fantasies of his mother, and of water, always water. All his suicidal fantasies, he said, related to drowning.
In 2004, after much thought, he drowned himself.

15 comments:

Laslo Spatula said...

My personality changed after my third concussion.

So here I am. Mostly.

I am Laslo.

traditionalguy said...

What a bad life. First being raised by an intermittently psychotic mother and then feeling under voodoo attack by ghosts. That is a bad mixture for a man with a serious head trauma. So his doctors punted and put him through anti psychotic drugs and electroshock therapy...and he killed himself.

CStanley said...

Psychiatry, psychology and neuroscience are still so sadly primitive. When people who are I experienced with mental illness hear stories of troubled individuals, they think "he should get help." The problem is, the help doesn't help- not nearly enough, anyway.

madAsHell said...

The problem is, the help doesn't help- not nearly enough, anyway.

All you can do is help the person into the ECU (Eternal Care Unit).

Freeman Hunt said...

I wonder if they experimented with various drugs after the happy post-anesthesia episode. It seems like that would have been a logical course.

Megaera said...

It sounds like the traumatic brain injury was the true cause, in a way we -- at this time -- cannot understand. Look at the classic case of Phineas Gage and find that frontal lobe trauma can induce disastrous, permanent personality changes; the span of years from Gage to Gray just confirms that medical advances can't necessarily mend psychic damage.

AJ Lynch said...

I thought Spalding Gray was a fictional character!

CStanley said...

Freeman- it made me wonder if his anesthetic induction included Ketamine. There is ongoing research into its effects on depression because it seems to provide dramatic (though short lived) improvement, particularly for refractory depression in bipolar disorder.

JSD said...

Swimming to Cambodia was really captivating. But even back then, it was unnerving to watch him tell strange stories of filming in Asia, doing acid and floating out to sea. He seemed to be a brilliant ne’er-do-well actor/writer/misfit who would always be the smartest guy in the room, but was never suited for success at anything; other than telling stories. Johnathan Demme did a great job of getting him in front of the camera.

Saint Croix said...

I wish he had tried the dog cure.

Ann Althouse said...

"I wonder if they experimented with various drugs after the happy post-anesthesia episode. It seems like that would have been a logical course."

I know. That's what I thought.

Carl Pham said...

Reading between the lines, Gray must've become unbelievably tiresome, and it must have been profoundly difficult to keep affection for the person he used to be alive, when confronted with this unrestrained id machine, a bundle of impulses, some amusing, some deeply malignant, all demanding exhausting response.

This is the big problem with depression. It's not sadness, regardless of how it's commonly described (or feels from the inside). It's primarily severely disordered thinking -- a failure of executive function -- and secondarily a bottomless well of murderous anger. You have to be a saint to cope with it for any length of time.

sydney said...

That's very interesting, but I can't help but wonder who gave him permission to tell his famous patient's story? Did his patient? If it was the patient was he competent to do so? Was it the wife? Does the wife have the right to do so after death? The story goes into a depth of detail that we normally don't divulge without express permission from a competent patient. I felt a little like a voyeur reading it.

Ann Althouse said...

@sydney Good question. I'm going to guess that Gray went to Sacks because he admired his fellow artisr and specifically wanted to be written about.

Why is it coming out now, so long after Gray's death. I'm guessing that Sacks, himself facing death, is completing his ongoing projects.

Both Sacks and Gray are wonderful writers whom I've loved for many years. I'd like to think they found love and meaning together.

lee said...

I stopped at "focussed." I have a hard time reading anything from "The New Yorker" with their affected (and inconsistent) British spellings. It's the NEW YORK-er, not the new YORKER. It's an American city, an American publication.

I'm sure it's an extremely interesting article -- I have read so much written by both men. But the New Yorker -- meh.