Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Ghost Boy: The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body, by Martin Pistorius

At the age of twelve the author and narrator of this story (Ghost Boy: The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body, 2013, by Martin Pistorius) began to lose control of his body.  His muscles weakened. He lost the ability to walk and talk.  His memories and cognitive abilities faded. Ultimately, he entered a vegetative state from which no real recovery was expected. For five years there was oblivion.  His father and mother cared for him, frantically seeking help from doctors and others.  Ultimately his mother gave up and tried to kill herself.  After five years, he began to see flashes of the world.  Within two years he was fully conscious but unable to move or communicate. He had no memory of his previous life.  He saw and heard everything around him, but no one knew he was there.

Over the next fifteen years, Pistorius returns to life.  He never regains speech or general use of his body, but through various means he learns to communicate and reconnect.  Undoubtedly this book itself was painstakingly typed into one of the devices he uses to communicate. Telling his own story, he also tells the story of his parents and siblings, of his sense of isolation and loss. Finally, over the Internet, he meets a woman and falls in love and they marry.

The most engrossing aspects of this story concern the years prior to his return to life, before he could communicate, before people knew he was something more than an insensible body. There are no great philosophical insights here.  The recovery itself is remarkable enough, and it reminds us how tenuous our grip on reality is, how quickly we can lose it. The account raises the question of what the Self is, whether it can exist at all locked within the mind beyond contact with the outer world. (What Self do any of us have, beyond the web of people and places and events that make up our reality?) Much of the latter part of this book, about his attempts to learn language, to form romantic attachments, to educate himself, to gain independence from the parents who cared for him through many long years, is prosaic and not especially interesting. But, as I said before, the recovery itself is remarkable.

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