Issue #13, 1999

What's the Story #13

The Brain: A Nonfiction Mystery

Lee Gutkind

What's the Story #13

“Through a strange legal fluke,” Megan Foss, one of the contributors of this issue, recently told me, “Someone sent me my medical records going back some 20 years, and there is a period of time—the best I can figure is about two-and-a-half to three years that describes events and conditions that not only do I have no memory of, but that I have always had entirely different memories of.”

It was a surreal experience for her to sit and read the narrative of her life written by people outside the world of drugs and prostitution—her own personal hellish world since she was a young teenager. Megan endured repeated hospitalizations for endocarditis and surgery on her hands and feet from infected or botched attempts to get a hit on a good vein. Reading about this life that she left so far behind, so long ago—seeing it recorded in black and white—became quite literally shocking and horrifying. But by far, the worst part was her discovery that there were long periods of time—years!—for which she had no memory at all. She began to wonder how much of her past she had obliterated, imagined—and how and why.

“Did I lose memory because of drugs, or did I use drugs to avoid memory?” The irony of this experience is that now, as a writer, so many years after these hidden incidents evidently occurred, Megan says, “I’m driving myself crazy trying to remember,” but at the same time, she is afraid to learn what she has so conveniently forgotten. “A nonfiction mystery, if you will.”

The concept and phrase—nonfiction mystery—is an apt way of describing this issue and the themes surrounding the brain itself, which, in addition to memory, include behavior, the creative process, intelligence, perspective, etc. No matter how much time, effort or resources we invest in attempting to understand the brain and how it works, it remains elusive and daunting, which is perhaps why it has become the object of such attention. As has been aptly observed in and accompanying essay, it was Albert Einstein who noted: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the true source of all art and science.”

The brain is the great and universal enigma—one of the most daunting frontiers in the world of science. You will see in this issue that writers are wrestling with and capturing the mystery of the brain from a variety of points of view—from the impact of drugs to that of trauma and disease. Throughout the 1990s, that period referred to by the National Institutes of Mental Health as “the decade of the brain,” scientists have unveiled a great deal of information leading to significant insight about the brain and how it works. As the decade ends, however, they are also beginning to understand how much more they need to know. 

This is not only a scientific conundrum; what is observed under a microscope and by MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) significantly affects human beings in a number of different areas. The descriptions of attempting to live normally with a damaged brain by Marilyn A. Gelman and Floyd Skloot, and a brain affected by drugs, by Megan Foss and Greg Bottoms, are dramatic and touching illustrations of the complications and transformations to life when the brain is affected even ever so slightly and subtly. Three scientists are also represented in this issue: Ronald Pies and David Goldblatt, both physicians, as well as James Glanz, a writer for Science magazine.

Although high-quality creative nonfiction is always three-dimensional in scope, this issue expands the content and spirit of the genre by adding a fourth realm. In collaboration with the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts (PCA), one of the premier artistic institutions in the country, we have also captured the mystery of the brain in the way it best deserves—through creative depictions by some of the world’s finest artists. In fact, this issue came about because of the creative vision of the PCA; curator Vicky Clark and director Laura Willumsen, working with exhibition curator Suzanne Ramljak, have scheduled an exhibit they have called “Romancing the Brain.”

I was privileged to see slides of some of the works of art—creations of fascination and beauty. Our collaboration began at that moment: Creative Nonfiction would offer a cash prize of $500 for the best essay about some aspect of the brain (awarded to Skloot for “Gray Area: Thinking With a Damaged Brain”) and devote and entire issue to essays which probe and explore the subject. The PCA would design its catalog to fit our journal and bind it in, adding an arresting, additional dimension to both the PCA exhibit and our issue. The PCA has also designed a program of educational explorations and activities with the help of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, which will be conducted through the rest of the year. Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Science Center has also become involved in this collaboration, and will be premiering “Gray Matters: The Brain Movie,” an interactive brain installation this fall.

As noted in my editorial in Creative Nonfictions No. 12, responding with alacrity to natural and spontaneous personal and spiritual connections enables us to see art in a broader cultural context. This too, is the PCA’s philosophy, according to Clark:

“I am presenting art of our times that provokes thought and gives us new insights and understanding by making connections to other ideas and disciplines. The brain show fits into this perfectly: We are dealing with a subject which has been touched upon by a variety of people. Each discipline has different tools, but the goal is the same: to understand an elusive object that is at the center of our being. As part of this investigation, our exhibit presents works of art that address the brain and attempt to come to an understanding of it, not only as a part of our body, but also as part of our culture.” 

Author Bio

Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind, recognized by Vanity Fair as “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” is the founder and editor of Creative... read more

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