When I headed up retail operations for Borders, one of my most critical tasks was hiring store managers. I loved the process of drawing out the motivations and character in someone I’d never met before—in an hour or less. Apart from looking for the ideal candidate (someone with integrity, a leader, self-motivated, creative, passionate and knowledgeable about books—easy, ha!) I was always curious about the choices the candidate made—from choosing a major in college, to first job, and so on, along his or her career path.
In Kurt Eichenwald’s lovely memoir, A Mind Unraveled, I felt like I was taken on such a journey, though with the space available in a memoir, it was intimate and expansive, more of a trip around the world, than the walk around the block that could be accomplished in an interview. And what a journey.
When Eichenwald was finishing high school, he began to have black-outs, which progressed to full-on seizures and became frequent and dangerous as he was starting college. (He would lose consciousness suddenly, and fall wherever he happened to be standing—down steps, into snow where he might lie for hours, onto sharp edges, hot stoves, etc.) Despite coming from a medical family (or maybe because of it, since his father was in denial) Kurt’s epilepsy was mis-diagnosed and/or negligently treated for years by incompetent doctors. His college reacted to his collapses by expelling him, which led to the fight of Kurt’s life because the one thing he couldn’t accept about his condition was that it would take away his dreams. He wanted to graduate with his class and he didn’t want anything to stop him—though it seemed that everything conspired against him, even at times, his own parents.
The writing is compelling. Eichenwald’s story reads like a thriller. You will feel indignant, even enraged by the injustices he faces, but there are selfless and empathetic characters too, who will restore your faith in humanity.
It’s also a cautionary tale: Take responsibility for your own health care. You need to do your own research, ask questions, choose wisely. Eichenwald would never have survived if he hadn’t taken charge.
But what I loved most about A Mind Unraveled was that Eichenwald makes a meaningful life out of very rough raw material. If you can’t walk a few blocks to buy groceries without possibly landing in an emergency room, you give serious thought to what you can control. Such as career and family life. Eichenwald is driven to make careful choices because so much has been decided for him; he’s determined to make the best of what is left to him, reminding me of my mantra, “Strength from what’s left.” Even when it seems like you have nothing, you can find some small shred to build on.
Back when I was hiring, I looked for people who’d been tested and proved their mettle. Eichenwald overcame enormous obstacles to thrive in his career as a journalist for the New York Times, where he was a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, among other awards and achievements. But if he hadn’t, I’d have been happy to hire him as a bookstore manager. Even if he might sometimes have fallen on the books.