The Atlantic

Making Art at the Painful Margins

What the violent suffering in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot taught the author Laurie Sheck about finding inspiration in torment and illness

Source: Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Michael Chabon, and more.


For three years, the writer Laurie Sheck suffered from an undiagnosed illness, an agonizing facial pain that put normal life out of reach. She sought medical attention, but the doctors couldn’t seem to determine what was wrong; some even suggested her symptoms were stress-induced, psychosomatic, a sign of madness. Meanwhile, the agony continued. “I would just sit at the dinner table with my husband and my daughter, thinking: If I could just have three minutes of normal life—if I could just sit here like a normal mother, I would be so happy,” she told me, in a phone interview.

Ultimately, she found a doctor who recognized her condition: trigeminal neuralgia, an excruciating disorder of a cranial nerve. Sheck now takes medication that manages the pain, which, according to the National Institutes for Health, can be extreme enough to be  “physically and mentally incapacitating.” The experience seems to have influenced the composition of Sheck’s most recent books, which feature characters made into outcasts as a result of their disordered bodies. In 2009, she published a hybrid novel that reimagines Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from the monster’s perspective. Her new novel, Island of the Mad, also has the ailing, unattended body at its core: The hunchbacked

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