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.
Fear and Trembling
Maybe it’s idiosyncratic to describe Kierkegaard’s treatise on Christian Faith as ‘life writing’. But to me there’s a febrile sense of personal investment – almost anguish – communicated by Fear and Trembling that sets it apart from most other works of philosophy. By admitting so much feeling into this work, Kierkegaard risked the derision of his contemporaries (you can see he was nervous about this from the book’s fretful preface). But the commitment to absurdity, and the risk of humiliation, is the whole point. When you’re dealing with life’s biggest questions, Kierkegaard tells us, reason alone is not enough.
There were occasions during the process of writing Tell Me the Planets when I felt intimidated by the responsibilities I had taken on and when books like White Girls, written with such courage, offered a vitalising example. Drawing on his work as a cultural critic, Als guides the reader through many provocative zones of thought – the romanticism buried in hip-hop music, the intersection of racism and art criticism, the predatory nature of the entertainment industry – without ever assuming the protection of writerly detachment. Every essay in White Girls contains an ‘I’ and in every case that ‘I’ does the work of owning what is seen and felt. As long as there are writers like Als we can all feel a little more courageous.
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.
More about the author
'An absorbing and moving account of what it is like to live with brain injury' Penelope Lively
'Heartbreaking and uplifting' Robert Newman
Matthew has a meticulously logical mind. He is intelligent, compassionate and fiercely loyal. He also has a brain injury.
When Matthew underwent surgery to remove a life-threatening cyst in the middle of his brain, he was left with extreme fatigue, a difficulty forming new memories and with a tendency to confabulate - to 'remember', with absolute conviction, events that have not occurred.
In Tell Me the Planets, Ben Platts-Mills tells stories about his work with survivors of brain injury, offering a rare glimpse into the world as seen through their eyes: charismatic Danny, whose criminal past has left him paralysed down one side, but who now helps others worse off than himself; Sid, whose memory for the present lasts only moments; and Liah, who is caught in a battle with the care system threatening to make her homeless.
But above all this is the story of the extraordinary friendship between Ben and Matthew, following their attempts to discover what has happened to Matthew's brain and how he might begin to rebuild his life. It is a journey that takes them to the frontiers of science and to the limits of human resilience: when they discover that the cyst is growing again, Matthew is left with an impossible decision to make.
'Platts-Mills writes with truth and eloquence about his relationships with brain injury survivors' Julia Samuel