Cole Cohen crowns each of the five sections in her thoughtful memoir and first book with snippets from Alice in Wonderland, which is not a coincidence. Both narratives track the surreal journey of a persistent girl as she encounters the unexpected and unidentifiable. And both stories meditate on the fluidity of time — specifically, how all of us corral it into shapes we try to control: the minutes spent boiling tea, the hour it takes to shower and get ready for work.
We gauge so much by counting: how many days left until a deadline, how many blocks to the bank, how much change we should receive after handing over $10 for a latte.
What happens when these sorts of increments disappear, or more puzzling, what happens when they never existed at all? What happens when a person is unable to distinguish between minutes and hours, when simple tasks like crossing the street or shopping for groceries cannot be navigated without assistance, explanatory notes and thorough, often fruitless, planning?
“What’s really going on is that I am horrible at math; I don’t know my left from my right; I can’t judge distance, time, or space, read maps, or travel independently without getting lost,” writes Cohen in Head Case. “The trouble is in wanting desperately to be believed or understood — that this really is my world— and in simultaneously not wanting to be found out.”
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At 26, Cohen receives a diagnosis that will offer her equal parts relief and terror. Finally, there is a tangible reason why she was unable to tie her shoes in kindergarten and why she has been unable to hold a job down as an adult. There is a hole in her brain, and as she sits in front of an MRI image with her parents and doctor, she describes it as “the shape of a lopsided heart.”
Her neurologist (the perfectly named Dr. Volt) explains to her that the hole — located in her parietal lobe and thus not rendering her dysfunctional or dead— is more like the small fist of a 10-year-old, or “about the size of a lemon.” Yet Cohen’s first perception of the void resonates most. After a lifetime of visits with psychologists, therapists and tutors, and years of others doubting her limitations, she has also had to live with the heartbreak of questioning her own intellect and capabilities, of wondering what value, if any, she has as a person, one who needs so much from those around her to simply get through an ordinary day.
If this sounds tragic, it is in some ways, and in others it is not, a duality that Cohen readily lays out in the early parts of her story. “There’s a unique pleasure in living free from a solid sense of time or space…,” she writes. “There’s a lovely self-involved gloss to my mornings, sitting on the edge of the bed spacing out, and forgetting that I need to keep moving if I’m going to get anywhere on time. There is also the sense of shame.”
Her honesty is part of what makes Head Case so readable; she’s unafraid to paint herself in a less than flattering guise, admitting to the enormous amount of psychic space she takes in her family or how she struggles to offer the same empathy to a lover that she needs from him.
Cohen is also pretty funny. After receiving her diagnosis, her family decides “to do what we usually do when faced with a family crisis, go out for Chinese food.” When a boyfriend she thought walked out on her explains he was just sitting in his car listening to an avant-garde rock record, we expect the conversation to veer into relationship land. Instead, she remarks, “Here’s what I’m not understanding. Who … listens to Frank Zappa to calm down?”
Cohen also amends some of her medical records, which she includes in the book, so that her MRI is not only filled with cerebrospinal fluid; it also contains “a creamy European hazelnut spread.”
Because she pairs her droll take alongside her scrutiny, Cohen’s story reads not as one about a neurology patient but about a young woman, a human being, trying to find her way through the misshapen labyrinth of her brain but also through the common milestones we all share — school, work, home and love. And this is what makes her story relatable. The truth is, life isn’t easy for any of us. As Cohen writes, “I’ve been looking for a map out of the pain of being human, but no one is born with a map of life in hand.”
Emma Trelles is the author of ‘Tropicalia,’ winner of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize.