26 July 2018
Reviewed by Astrid Edwards
Rarely have I been so delighted by a memoir about Multiple Sclerosis. I recommend Christian Donovan’s The Unmapped Mind: A memoir of neurology, incurable disease and learning how to live (2018) to anyone diagnosed with MS, as well as their nearest and dearest.
When I was diagnosed with MS (almost) five years ago, I hunted down as many books about MS as I could. All made me feel less alone, but few were well written. Donlan is a writer by trade, and it shows: Donlan tells his story, and he tells it well. The Unmapped Mind is an exploration of fatherhood, family and friendship. While MS is present on every page, is not explicitly mentioned until page 6 – a refreshing change from other MS memoirs, which tend to focus on the disease and not the life to be lived.
Donlan has RRMS, the most common form of MS. He asks a pointed question: ‘What does it mean to find yourself without a map?’. It is a question many with MS have pondered, because that is what living with MS is like: living in unchartered territory, where even the best case scenario is life changing and the worst case scenario is too distressing to contemplate.
Donlan writes with honesty, but also with insight. The descriptions of his symptom are beautiful and relatable: losing the feeling in his hands, being overwhelmed by trigeminal neuralgia, dealing with MS euphoria (which I must admit, almost sounds appealing) and confronting issues with proprioception. Donlan’s description of l’Hermittes sign (a symptom I know all too well) was so good I clapped my hands and made my partner read it. Thank you, Donlan, now I know I am not the only one to try to ‘control it a little… play it like a musical instrument’.
Donlan also considers the lives of famous people with MS and who he would like to be like. I’m not sure if anyone else does that, but I admit, I do. For me, I always go back to Joan Didion, although Donlan goes with Terri Garr. It turns out we both find the fictional President Bartlett from The West Wing ‘too lofty’.
My favourite sections, however, were those about Jean-Martin Charcot, the doctor who first identified MS. Understanding the history of MS treatments (and lack thereof) seems to give Donlan encouragement, and as a reader, I felt the same. Honestly, it feels good to be diagnosed in a decade where MS treatments have advanced so much. Donlan uses flashbacks to the work of Charcot, as well as the esteemed Oliver Sacks, to remind the reader that MS ‘is not the end of experience, but the beginning of a new strain of experience’.
If MS means anything to you or someone you love, Donlan’s observations will be a revelation for you. Even his reflections on his neurologist made me consider my own treatment… My neurologist ‘is one of the most important people in my life, and yet I have met him on only a handful of occasions, and spent less than an afternoon, all told, in his company’.
Congratulations to Donlan for a brilliant memoir on Multiple Sclerosis. And hats off to Penguin Viking for publishing such a wonderful book on a topic few publishers engage with. More like this, please.
About Astrid Edwards: