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Koppel, Barbara MD

Infobytes: Book Review

Dr. Koppel is Chief of Neurology at Metropolitan Hospital and Professor of Neurology at New York Medical College in New York City.

Bee Season by Myla Goldberg, 288 pages. Knopf. 2001

Epilepsy has long been a feature of literature – from the works of Dostoyevsky to more contemporary novels by Michael Crichton and Rona Jaffee. All have treated epilepsy as a trigger for life-changing decisions, such as choosing not to marry or pursuing a particular career because of the stigma associated with epileptic seizures.

Two books published last year – Bee Season and Lying Awake – present insights into the interplay between spirituality and interictal personality characteristics. Both works seem to invoke the “temporal lobe” traits of hyper-religiosity described by Bear and Fedio (Archives of Neurology 1977).

Myla Goldberg's Bee Season tells the story of a “born again” Jewish family living in a Pennsylvania suburb. In Lying Awake, a novella by Mark Salzman, a cloistered nun's intense religiosity is a focus of other nuns' jealousy in her convent.

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In Ms. Goldberg's first novel, a completely bizarre family emerges from exquisitely detailed descriptions. We meet the daughter Eliza as a dejected nine-year-old who receives no respect or even notice from her brilliant family when she is not placed in the gifted and talented class of second graders.

Eliza discovers she has a special talent for spelling, however, and as she wins progressively larger spelling bees, she emerges as the heroine. Her unusual gift wins the love of her mystical father Saul, a cantor and frustrated former hippie. Saul believes that Eliza's talents make her an ideal student for the teachings of Abulafia, a 1500s' Kabbalistic mystic who strove to teach followers how to know God by permuting Hebrew letters.

The way Eliza to feels when she senses and visualizes the correct letter fly into her mouth, while practicing for spelling bees for hours with her father, is exactly the way Rabbi Abulafia tried to show his followers how to find God.

As Saul translates from the Hebrew: “You will feel then as if an additional spirit is within you, arousing you and strengthening you, passing through your entire body and giving you pleasure. You will experience ecstasy and trembling. There will be no question that, through this wondrous method, you have reached one of the Fifty Gates of Understanding. This is the lowest gate.” He explains: “That's what we're aiming for, Elly. In twenty years of trying, I've never been able to reach the lowest gate. Once you're there, the words will be yours.”

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As the national spelling bee approaches Eliza goes without sleep to permute Hebrew letters in search of God's voice. The night before the championship spelling bee, Eliza approaches the ecstatic plane of discovering Aboulafia's words. She then experiences a generalized seizure. This seizure, though poetically described, is accurate in every clinical detail, such as the metallic taste, the transformation of vision, tongue biting, urination, muscle aches, and exhaustion the following day.

Figure. Bee

Figure. Bee

Although Eliza's generalized seizure came as a relief to me, allowing a “scientific” explanation for her previous séance-like states during spelling sessions – which appear like partial complex seizures – this was no coincidence.

When I met the author at a local reading, she told me that she deliberately included a seizure to provide a scientific, rather than mystical explanation, for Eliza's spells during her letter permutations.

Although I assumed Ms. Goldberg had deliberately used temporal lobe seizures to lead her heroine into a special relationship with her religious father, and that the frequent partial seizures led to the generalized seizure, I may have read too much into the author's neurologic focus.

Ms. Goldberg told me the generalized seizure evolved from the extreme stress of Eliza's final few days in the national spelling bee, combined with the absence of her institutionalized bipolar mother and the changed relationship to her brother who had joined the Krisna cult. The specific connection of Bear and Fedio's “temporal lobe personality” to the spirituality of the heroine was not intended in the case of this book.

©2002 American Academy of Neurology