Shadows Bright as Glass: The Remarkable Story of One Man's Journey from Brain Trauma to Artistic Triumph

Shadows Bright as Glass: The Remarkable Story of One Man's Journey from Brain Trauma to Artistic Triumph

by Amy Ellis Nutt


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781439143117
Publisher: Free Press
Publication date: 04/19/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Amy Ellis Nutt has been a writer at The Newark Star-Ledger for thirteen years. She has won numerous national awards for newspaper writing and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for her series about Jon Sarkin. She holds two Masters degrees, one in philosophy from M.I.T., and one in journalism from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. She lives in New Jersey.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


There was money riding on the hole, as always. The two friends had battled back and forth all afternoon on the Cape Ann golf course, and though Hank Turgeon was finally ahead by a couple of bucks, he wasn’t about to let up. He’d already sprung for the beer: twelve mini cans of Budweiser stashed in ice in the side pocket of his golf bag. The beer probably weighed more than his clubs did—he carried just three irons and a driver. Jon Sarkin, however, had about a dozen irons and woods in his father’s old canvas bag. The competition may have been friendly, but Sarkin liked to be prepared for contingencies—the rough, trees, water—and Lord knows there were plenty of them when he played. He needed all the clubs he could carry.

By the time they reached the eighth hole, they were loose and laughing, enjoying their good-natured rivalry. Turgeon had the honor, stepped up to the tee, and took a healthy hack with his driver. He hit the ball fat and popped it high into the crisp, Wedgwood-blue sky, then watched it land in the thick rough, just fifty yards away.

“Nice shot,” Sarkin said sarcastically.

The time was about 3:00 p.m., Thursday, October 20, 1988, and the two friends had lucked out when they decided to cut out of work early, Sarkin from his chiropractic office, Turgeon from his carpentry. The weather was warm and sunny, and they both happily breathed in the ocean air wafting across the Cape Ann golf course, some thirty-five miles northeast of Boston. The nine public holes rest on a spit of land carved out of the swamp and rocks by glaciers thousands of years ago. Sarkin always enjoyed the view from the eighth tee box, the highest point on the course and the farthest from the clubhouse. To his left, a winding creek emptied into a thin slice of harbor that gave way to the yawning Atlantic. To his right, shards of sunlight splintered the last leaves on a tall oak, scattering shadows across the fairway. A slight breeze rippled the surface of the creek as Sarkin bent down, reached inside the pocket of his golf bag, and fished around for a tee. As he pulled his hand out, he experienced a hideous dizzying sensation, as if his brain had suddenly twisted inside his head. He stood up and froze.

What the hell just happened? he thought.

In less than half a second, a part of his head had seemed to unhinge, to split apart and rush away.

I’m going to die. I’m thirty-five years old and I’m going to die, he said to himself.

“Is anything wrong?” Turgeon asked.

Sarkin hesitated, trying to get his bearings.


What could he say? That he felt as if his brain had just broken in half? Maybe the sensation would pass. Maybe he even imagined it. He took a few deep breaths, teed up his ball, and swung from his heels. As he often did on his drives, he topped the ball twenty yards—plunk—right into the marsh at the front of the tee box.

“You’re going to break your freakin’ neck with that swing.” Turgeon laughed.

Sarkin felt queasy, and as he walked toward the fairway, he tried not to move his head. What he did not know—what he could not know—was that somewhere deep in his brain, a single blood vessel had shifted ever so slightly and the movement, as miniscule as it was, had caused a cataclysmic response in one of his cranial nerves.

There are 100 billion capillaries in the human brain. Placed end to end they would stretch from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Portland, Maine. Inside Sarkin’s head a tiny patch of one of those blood vessels, as narrow as a thread and no longer than a single stitch, had suddenly bulged and was now touching, ever so slightly, the eighth cranial nerve. In that thinnest of breaths between one moment and the next, Sarkin’s hearing and balance were threatened and, if the vessel ruptured, possibly his life. He felt dizzy and nauseous and confused.

Sarkin didn’t bother looking for his ball, so he took a drop. Several strokes later, he finally chopped and hacked his way to the green. All he wanted was to go home.

“Do you mind if we quit?” he said after putting out.

“Sure,” Turgeon answered.

Sarkin had become quiet and Turgeon thought that maybe his friend was just frustrated with his game. No problem. He’d had enough, too, and it was getting cool, anyway. In the fading autumn light, they wound their way back to the clubhouse, dragging their clubs behind them.

On the ten-minute drive home to Gloucester, Sarkin sat glumly in the passenger seat of Turgeon’s navy-blue pickup truck, trying to right himself. Looking out the window at the autumn colors whirling by, he started to feel dizzy again. A sense of panic, even dread, enveloped him. He had no idea what was going to happen next. Often, after they played a round, the two friends drove up to Halibut Point for drinks, but Turgeon sensed Sarkin just wanted to get home.

The two had known each other since the early 1980s. Both played guitar and both occasionally jammed with a local band called the Joe Tones. Turgeon grew up on Cape Ann, and when he first met Sarkin, he wasn’t sure what to think. Here was this Eastern college boy in khaki pants and pressed shirt, smart and polite and straight-edged. But the guy sure knew music—jazz, folk, blues, rock. In the past several years, they had also become dedicated duffers. They played at least once a week after work or on the weekends. One summer they even rented a house in Truro, out on Cape Cod, and played thirty-six holes a day for a week. They were out in the sun so long they told each other they looked like burn victims.

By the time Turgeon dropped Sarkin off it was almost dark. He got out of the truck and slowly lifted his clubs from the bed.

“See ya,” he said.

Sarkin paced himself, walking carefully up the curving granite steps to the front door, still hoping the world might tilt back on its axis. When he walked in the door, his wife, Kim, knew immediately something wasn’t right. He looked miserable.

“What’s wrong, Jon?” she asked, balancing their nine-month-old baby boy on her hip. She watched as her husband walked slowly across the living room to the futon couch, sat down, and buried his head in his hands.

“What’s wrong?” she asked again, a little more urgently.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” he answered “Something happened. I was bending down, and then my brain just… twisted.”

Sarkin held two clenched fists in front of his face and then turned them, abruptly, in opposite directions, as if wringing out a wet towel.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “I just know everything is different. Everything’s different and it’s not ever going to be the same.”

© 2011 Amy Ellis Nutt

Table of Contents

Prologue Shadows Bright as Glass 1

Chapter 1 Thin as a Thread 5

Chapter 2 A Thousand Screaming Baboons 9

Chapter 3 Rolling the Dice 13

Chapter 4 Six Cups of Fluid and Tissue 21

Chapter 5 Building a Life 27

Chapter 6 Code Blue 37

Chapter 7 The Mechanical Mind 44

Chapter 8 Two Halves 55

Chapter 9 Absolve Me 67

Chapter 10 Puzzle Pieces 78

Chapter 11 Adrift 86

Chapter 12 A Haunted House 93

Chapter 13 The Ghost and the Ice Pick 104

Chapter 14 A Double Consciousness 114

Chapter 15 The Accidental Artist 122

Chapter 16 Proceed with Abandon 125

Chapter 17 Bridging the Imaginable 134

Chapter 18 Art Boy 139

Chapter 19 The Inner Savant 144

Chapter 20 Blindsight 152

Chapter 21 Seeing Is Believing 158

Chapter 22 Senses and Sensibilities 163

Chapter 23 The Imagination Instinct 171

Chapter 24 Ghosts of the Present 174

Chapter 25 The Extended Self 178

Chapter 26 Boltflash 188

Chapter 27 Working in the Dark 194

Chapter 28 Things Speak for Themselves 199

Chapter 29 Richard's Gift 207

Chapter 30 Infinity On Trial 217

Chapter 31 The Loquacious Brain 222

Chapter 32 Finding Tommy 231

Chapter 33 Best Friends 235

Chapter 34 Unbound 239

Chapter 35 Flawed Words, Stubborn Sounds 245

Bibliography 251

Acknowledgments 261

Index 263

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Shadows Bright as Glass: The Remarkable Story of One Man's Journey from Brain Trauma to Artistic Triumph 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a fascinating book about how the brain integrates ideas and controls our actions and emotions. There are several interesting detours along the main storyline, but these are rather short, odd and enjoyable to read. One thing that impresses you along the way is the inner strength of the entire Sarkin family.
david kallemeyn More than 1 year ago
Well written biography interspersed with the history of our understanding of how the brain works. Sarkin's story is amazing and the more research-oriented sections (such as a brief history of the lobotomy) are woven well with his story. You can tell Nutt did her homework, thoroughly researched and well written.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago