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Concussion Paperback – November 24, 2015
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Advance praise for Concussion
“A gripping medical mystery and a dazzling portrait of the young scientist no one wanted to listen to . . . a fabulous, essential read.”—Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
“The story of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s battle against the NFL is classic David and Goliath stuff, and Jeanne Marie Laskas—one of my favorite writers on earth—makes it as exciting as any great courtroom or gridiron drama. A riveting, powerful human tale—and a master class on how to tell a story.”—Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit
“Bennet Omalu forced football to reckon with head trauma. The NFL doesn’t want you to hear his story, but Jeanne Marie Laskas makes it unforgettable. This book is gripping, eye-opening, and full of heart.”—Emily Bazelon, author of Sticks and Stones
About the Author
Jeanne Marie Laskas is the author of seven books, including Concussion, Hidden America, and The Exact Same Moon. Her writing has appeared in GQ, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, O: The Oprah Magazine, and many other publications. Laskas serves as director of The Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh, where she teaches creative writing, and she lives on a horse farm in Pennsylvania with her husband and two children.
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It's a true story that, even without embellishment, reads like the plot of a novel. Jeanne Marie Laskas has never written a novel, but she's well-known for her creative, intimate narrative nonfiction - and now she has turned the literary gifts that served her so well over the course of a trilogy of memoirs to this tale of sports and science. Readers interested exclusively in the medical and/or legal aspects of the NFL head-trauma controversy might well be advised to look elsewhere, as "Concussion" is first and foremost Dr. Omalu's story - but even they might find this lively little book a genial supplement to the more comprehensive or technical literature. Laskas's portrait of the quirky neuropathologist, though not always flattering (Omalu can be inconsistent and naive), is suffused with warmth and admiration. Although Omalu's work on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, what I'd picked up the book to read about in the first place, is barely alluded to in the first 85 pages, so engaging is Laskas's account of her subject's early life and education, and so quickly did the pages of smooth prose seem to turn themselves, that I hardly noticed the delay.
"Concussion" would be worth reading for the inherent interest of the story alone, but Laskas's presentation is, for the most part, an asset. As her Acknowledgements make clear, she researched her story with the thoroughness of a journalist, but she relates it with the vividness and flow of that sometimes enigmatic subgenre, the nonfiction novel. Instead of dumping information on us, she often recreates events and conversations "as accurately as an informed imagination will allow." Unfortunately, I have a couple of minor quibbles with her style. Her alternating use of past and present tenses in different chapters or sections of the book didn't really work for me. Done right, a shift from past to present tense can add tension and immediacy to a narrative, but there didn't seem to be any rule governing Laskas's decision to use one or the other, and it felt a bit sloppy. I was also mildly confused by occasional passages printed in italics that seemed to be written in Dr. Omalu's own voice, unsure whether these were truly Omalu's own words or Laskas's creative reconstruction of his thought process. (It's the former, but that isn't made clear until the Acknowledgements.)
I can't help wanting to call special attention to the wisdom and understanding Laskas brings to the parts of the book that describe Omalu's struggle with depression as a young adult. I don't know whether Laskas (or someone very close to her) has actually suffered from depression, or if she just listened to Omalu's own account with unusual empathy, but I can say for certain that she *gets* it. Seldom have I read before, even in books specifically about the subject of depression, anything like this: "Depression starts like a membrane, a shield you can't pierce, the internal world so vivid and nagging, the external world right *there*, right in front of you. He felt angry at the world for being so difficult to enter. . . . Depression is like a virus festering in your mind, and the discovery of it can cripple before it cures. . . . Depression isn't a thing that lifts or disappears just because of a change of scenery. The voice follows you no matter where you go, reminding you that you are worthless." That's some powerful stuff - and with black sufferers being less likely than whites, and men less likely than women, to seek treatment for depression, I can't thank Laskas and Omalu enough for giving the world the story of a Nigerian man who struggled in that black fog for years, then emerged to accomplish great things.
Author Jeanne Marie Laskas also paints detailed and sympathetic biography of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-American pathologist who discovered and defined CTE – Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
Omalu first discovered what happens to brain tissue after repeated concussions sustained in the majority of football players, after analyzing the brain tissue of former Pittsburgh Steelers player Mike Webster, and other pro football players. More disturbing than what Omalu finds is the
reaction of the National Football League, which tried for years to deny and dismiss Omalu's findings. Despite this, Dr. Omalu persisted and continued to do his research, publicizing his studies (which are ongoing).
Repeated throughout this book is the fact that helmets - no matter how protective - do not protect the brain itself from being smashed up against the skull. The effects these injuries - some not detected for years - is often devastating.
What the reader must decide is whether the game of football is worth watching, considering the implications to players, which are described in this book. Whatever justification one may use, the answers are covered in "Concussion". Like Gladiatorial Games in ancient Roman coliseums, one must look away to enjoy and engage.
Further, this book should be required reading - sort of a "warning label" - for those who would participate in NFL football, or any other contact sport which involves repeated blows to the head - BEFORE they enter the arena.