I have read about half of this book to date. I picked it up not realising it was non-fiction, but it is a fascinating and sad account of people who had spent decades in trance-like states the results of a mystery illness, Encephalitis lethargica. That there have been outbreaks of this possibly viral illness in various places from the earliest reported times of history makes it quite extraordinary that so little was known about it. Outbreaks seem to hit individuals totally at random - one person in a school of four hundred, single members of families, and very often it has gone undiagnosed. The person will often be described as frozen, retarded, psychotic.
The symptoms are very variable and often quite diametrically opposed in type from tics that cause lightning fast repeated movements or speech to ones that result in the patient freezing mid-action for hours, or months at a time.
When roused from this state by the use of a 'wonder drug' the reactions again were varied and unpredictable and the side effects and reactions to the dose seem also to have been unpredictable and sometimes more terrible than the state of suspended animation. The patients' reports during these awakenings are so like stories like Alice in Wonderland and the Sleeping Beauty that I cannot but think that the authors of such stories had come into contact with people suffering from this condition.
The stories are sad, from those who found the loss of all their adult years unbearable, to those who accepted it but then had to be taken off the drug which released them from it because of terrible adverse reactions which plunged them into a nightmare existence.
Each case study tells a different, very personal story, each a tragedy of lost life. I have read the case studies and am now onto the final summary, but I am finding it tough reading, littered as it is with medical terms and vocabulary with which I am not familiar, and which in many cases are not to be found in the glossary either.
I have found it particularly gruelling wading through the notes of Sacks' conclusions at the end of the book. Whereas the case notes held a fascination in opening a door onto the very varied, and dream/nightmare qualities of the worlds these post-encephalitic patients inhabited, the notes and summaries did not really add anything for me and were couched in psychiatric and medical terms which made them difficult reading.
The book has given me a loathing for footnotes, some of which in this slim volume took up 80 to 90% of five or six pages. They disrupted my reading and were awkward. To my mind it has confirmed the feeling that if it needs saying it should be in the text, if not, omit it altogether. Many of these notes may be due to the revision of the book by him in 1976 (orig. released 1973), but he would have been better just to rewrite it, or to add new chapters after the original book's end.
I wonder if I have been unfair in my judgement of methods and treatments now 41 years plus in the past. However I worked in a huge mental hospital for several months in the early 1960s and I already condemned and spoke up about some of the care and treatment offered there. I am sure my outrage now is merely a product of my character and not of the times we live in.
A sad book about devastated lives merely the tip of an iceberg since thousands were affected.