I have to admit that when I received a complimentary novel from Doubleday about brain injury, I was skeptical. How could anyone who has not been through a brain injury journey write a story about this intimate, transformational journey?
Meet Christian Jungersen. He did it.
You Disappear is narrated by Mia Halling, wife of Frederik, in Eastern Denmark.
A brain tumor causes a change in Frederik’s personality that wreaks havoc on his family, friends, and the private school where he is headmaster. The novel masterfully shows how little people are willing to understand a medical condition when it personally violates them in some way; how sinister brain injury is with its ability to wipe out a person’s identity — including all his good work and past relationships — and how deeply and drastically family members change in response to a loved one’s brain injury. Take the wife who decides to cheat on her brain-injured husband with a mutual friend, for instance, or the son who supports the dangerous and zany ideas of his injured father.
With incredible insight, Jungersen expresses the inner thoughts most people won’t say out loud after a loved one’s brain injury. In particular, I was struck by how many quotes could have come directly from my own mouth. In the beginning, Mia thinks: “The only person who mustn’t get angry is me. If I succumb, everything will fall apart.”
The author also starts several chapters with clinical studies and information to explain Frederik’s condition and behavior, including a few tid bits I had never heard about like this one: “One out of every eight people over 45 has a brain injury without realizing it, according to a Dutch study reported in The New England Journal of Medicine.” This particular statistic was not shocking to me given all I now know about the brain, behavior, and compensatory strategies … and as a woman well past 45, I’ve often thought I might have a mild brain injury myself because of my poor short-term memory and the difficulty I have concentrating and maintaining close attention!
Many perspectives are shared in this book: mother, father, child, friend, colleague, and community — each relationship depicted with raw honesty. My sympathies changed, as I tore through this story page by page, relating to each and every complex emotion driven by unforeseen circumstances, as lives are thrown out of control.
I won’t give too much more away, but I will say that this passage struck the heart of me:
“As any family member of someone with brain damage knows, the hard part isn’t the initial shock. The hard part comes when the adrenaline recedes and you have to set out down the endless grey corridor of disheartening days, days that look like they’ll last the rest of your life.
The daily grind in which companionship is lacking. Where you find yourself more alone than you thought humanly possible; where you grieve so much, you just want to stay in bed for months. And where you force yourself to get up anyway for your kids’ sake — and because your spouse isn’t actually dead.”
This is a dark, intriguing storyline that is unfortunately the true story of far too many people in the world whose lives come undone because of brain injury. It ends realistically, heart wrenchingly, but not without shedding light on a better way to cope, at last.
As a TBI caregiver, author, and speaker on brain injury topics, it’s my wish that stories shared will resonate and educate people not affected by brain injury, so better treatments and more support will result. But books about brain injury are a hard sell to the general public. This psychological thriller may be the one to break through.
Misha Hoekstra translates You Disappear from Danish to English.