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SunLit Interview: Robert V. Dodge became his own case study for an often misunderstood condition

Although "Grand Mal" is a memoir, the author researched his own medical records -- and sometimes found surprising information

Robert Dodge was a history teacher for 37 years and an expat for 35. He is the author of eight non-fiction books. Dodge earned a BA in history and an MS in education from North Dakota State University and an MPA from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.


Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate? 

I developed epilepsy following unknown encephalitis when I was 32. It eventually became much more serious, resulting in four brain surgeries and removal of an eighth of my brain. As the condition is widely misunderstood and blanketed in stigma, I decided to use my story to help explain the reality of it.

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Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it? 

This excerpt is when I first had an observed seizure. I selected it to show how unexpected and random it was to introduce the much more serious and dangerous events that would follow.

Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book? 

Since this is a memoir, I relied on my recollection of events, but also interviewed people who were around me during them, and obtained a vast quantity of hospital records of my treatments. A considerable amount of research was required from academic sources and an epilepsy doctor encouraged me.

Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?

The unexpected directions came from reading the notes from my doctors, particularly the Johns Hopkins records. The topics brought up were surprising and sometimes frightening, allowing me to discuss topics that I wouldn’t have considered. 

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book? 

I learned from my research of medical records that during my brain surgeries things were removed that I hadn’t been aware of previously. In some cases, this included areas that could affect temperament and other processes which may explain my behavior and some physical difficulties.

Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?

The book has mainly provoked sympathy and empathy. I’ve had people say they understand me better now, having read it. The book has also provoked respect and admiration for my wife, Jane, and how she intervened often in difficult situations, both in and out of hospitals. 

Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write? 

Most of my writing is done at home or in nearby coffee shops. I’ve done books in the seclusion of my mountain sister’s cabin. I choose a topic or person and do research to a point where I feel familiar with it. 

Next I organize my thoughts into a general approach, then a rough outline. At that point I begin writing, and as I make progress, do more research in the areas where the writing is headed. 

Is it true that the left side of the brain is logical while the right side of the brain is creative? 

It has become common usage to describe people as “left-brained” who are inclined to rational analysis and “right brained” when they are creative, artistic. While the two hemispheres function separately and slightly differently, this is an oversimplification and both hemispheres participate in rational thought and creativity. 

This is evident in corpus callosotomies, or split-brain operations, which was a possibility for me that came up in discussion, and hemispherectomies, the removal of an entire half of the brain, which a patient in an adjoining room had experienced. 

It is also true in the WADA test, a procedure I had that involved having each hemisphere of my brain anesthetized separately, then preforming tasks and responding to questions with the functioning hemisphere. Speech was the only noticeable difference I recall, while split brain raises ethical and philosophical questions.

Tell us about your next project.

I have begun a book on immigration, based on a wealth of documents inherited from my mother’s side of the family and coming from Norway, settling on the Great Plains, homesteading, and life in very small communities in the mid to late 1800s, beginning of the 1900s.


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