In Tell Me the Planets, he describes the extraordinary friendship he develops with one brain injury survivor in particular, Matthew. It is a beautifully written account of Matthew's experiences following his brain injury and it exposes the urgent need for improvement in our care systems. Here, Ben selects the five pieces of life writing which inspired him whilst writing his book.
On the Move
As a teenager, I was captivated when I read Oliver Sacks’ essay collection, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. It’s a seminal text about neurological illness and a deeply mysterious synthesis of scientific reference and artistic endeavour. But, for me, Sacks’ 2016 autobiography, On the Move, is indispensable because it contextualizes him as both a clinician and writer. He discloses his clumsiness as a researcher, his struggle with drug addiction and the heartbreak and isolation he experienced as a gay man rejected for his sexuality by some of his closest family. These vulnerabilities were the source of great pain for Sacks but also surely informed his immense sensitivity as a writer and the compassion he felt towards the patients he wrote about.
Rape New York
I stumbled across this incredible book by chance several years ago. It describes the author’s experience of being raped at gunpoint in her apartment and her subsequent investigation into how the weakness of the city’s public institutions and the negligence of her landlord had conspired to make her vulnerable: “My life was worth less than the cost of a lock to my landlord.” It’s Leo’s combination of intellectual mettle and emotional presence that I find impressive. “The belief that my life could randomly be cut short made it hard for me to pursue long-term projects or relationships,” she writes about life after the assault, “…My world had shrunk.” Reading this, we understand that the writing itself has become a mode of recovery. We are lucky to have this document.
Voices from The Storm
Lola Vollen and Chris Ying
This describes the impact of hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans from the viewpoints of the citizens who lived through it. The genius here is as much in the editorial vision as it is in the writing. Based on interview transcripts, the stories communicate in fascinating detail the narrators’ differing voices and experiences; carefully edited and woven together, they build a breath-taking account of a large-scale calamity. With its combination of political ambition and dramatic impact, Voices from the Storm, had a huge influence on Headway East London’s life writing project, Who Are You Now? (whoareyounow.org), which in turn was an incredible resource when I came to write my own account in Tell Me the Planets.