In "Shadows Bright as Glass: The Remarkable Story of One Man's Journey from Brain Trauma to Artistic Triumph," Pulitzer Prize winner Amy Ellis Nutt tells the amazing story of how Jon Sarkin's life was changed through a "single cruel trick of nature." "Shadows" isn't a biography in the traditional sense, as Nutt gives ample consideration of the questions that Sarkin's transformation raises about consciousness, the relationship of the brain to the mind, and the nature of art and inspiration.
Sarkin's nightmare began on a warm October afternoon in 1988. While playing golf on Cape Cod with a friend, Sarkin -- chiropractor and family man -- bent to reach for a ball and immediately felt "a hideous dizzying sensation, as if his brain had suddenly twisted inside his head." A blood vessel in his brain had moved, irritating a nerve ending. His ears rang with a debilitating violence. Thereafter, Sarkin could not work, hold his young child or tolerate visits from friends or family members.
Seeing no other option, he elected to have brain surgery. Complications from the initial surgery threatened his life, and it was necessary to go back in to remove dead tissue, including a substantial portion of his cerebellum, which is responsible for balance and motor control.
Nutt writes movingly about Sarkin's healing, its effects on his family and the profound dislocation he felt. As his brain rewired, Sarkin was "adrift, unanchored to time or place or person, and unsure if he would ever find safe berth." Strange behavior manifested itself, such as the overwhelming need to recycle and the intense compulsion to draw. The brakes were off, and every waking moment he had to create, covering any available space, from pizza boxes to previously painted canvases.
Sarkin's talent and creative drive were exceptional and seemed to come whole-cloth out of nowhere, but it was a rare side effect of the brain's remapping after injury. He was an "acquired savant," someone who develops remarkable abilities after brain injury, and Nutt takes the opportunity to discuss a range of relevant issues in brain science. She surveys historical understandings of the role of the brain, offers notable case studies and outlines issues of consciousness and selfhood.
Here things sometimes get messy. The digressions and explanations, while clear in themselves, do not always illuminate and, worse, occasionally feel rehashed from other sources. Nutt sometimes treats Sarkin like a subject in a neurologist's case file, which at once seems both appropriate and diminishing. There is a lyrical celebration of his gift and the purity of his creation but also an unresolved tension with the reductive clinical explanation. It is one of the challenges inherent in writing about such a situation. Is it the injury or the art, the brain or the soul, the light or the shadows, that best defines the man?
- Martin Schmutterer is a writer in St. Paul.