Photograph by Jack Illingworth.
"Hope" is the thing with feathers—That perches in the soul—And sings the tune without the words—And never stops—at all—And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—And sore must be the storm—That could abash the little BirdThat kept so many warm—I've heard it in the chillest land—And on the strangest Sea—Yet, never, in Extremity,It asked a crumb—of Me.Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson's words have inspired generations. In particular, the poem above seems to have struck a chord within the special needs community--perhaps because Emily Dickinson is one of us?
Known for her reclusiveness as much as her creativity, it was long thought that Ms. Dickinson suffered from mental illness. New research revealed in her biography Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds indicates that her condition was more neurologic than psychiatric. According to author Lyndall Gordon, the drugs prescribed to Ms. Dickinson were ones used at the time for epilepsy.
With the diagnosis of epilepsy, many strange aspects of Emily Dickinson's life tumble into coherence. Her reclusiveness transforms into the common fear of having a seizure in public. Her unmarried state is due to the stigma associated with seizures--in many states "epileptics" were forbidden by law to marry. Her white wardrobe and adherence to routine? An attempt to reduce overstimulation and resulting seizures. Even her creativity? Temporal lobe epilepsy has long been associated with creative genius.
This book doesn't focus solely on the poet's epilepsy; it includes the many familial struggles she faced. But, given the hurdles which individuals with epilepsy still face today, the beauty that Emily Dickinson managed find and create is made even more astounding.
Thanks to Lyndall Gordon's investigation, Emily Dickinson, who has long inspired us with her words, now inspires us with her life.
**Disclaimer: I am using the word "epileptic" here for historical accuracy and grammatical consistency. The term "epileptic" is no longer used, as individuals suffering from epilepsy are not defined by their condition. After all, no one refers to someone suffering from cancer as a cancerian, right? That said, as I've witnessed some spectacular showdowns over the use of the E-word, please don't crucify me!