Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke
Some of you have already begun asking yourselves existential questions. Maybe because of your age, or your health, or you’re just prone to reveries about human existence. Questions like: When will I die? Is there any meaning to the life I’ve lived? What should I do with whatever time remains for me on earth?
It took a stroke that I suffered two years ago at the age of 66 to compel me to think in a deep, sustained way about my mortality and about the much larger questions of Life and Death, in capital letters. The existential questions that get buried in most Americans' frantic rush to do and spend and enjoy—and to avoid boredom and anxiety and suffering. But death is a shadow that we can’t outrun. It’s a constant companion we must learn to accept, even welcome, as part of our lives.
As the founder of the pioneering online publication Salon and later as a New York Times bestselling author, I’ve been known through most of my life as a prober of power and politics in books like Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years and The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA and the Rise of America’s Secret Government. I’ve also explored the thrill and danger of political and cultural revolution in Season of the Witch. But I’ve never searched deeply inside myself as a writer until my massive stroke in 2017 forced me to examine my suddenly precarious existence and why I was still on earth.
I began tapping out my internal explorations—and my newly acute observations about the world around me—while I was still very much in recovery. I felt half dead, because a small part of my brain had indeed died. The part that controls such rather essential functions as swallowing, speaking, seeing, standing, and walking.
I could barely type, with my right hand more a clumsy claw than something human. But I was on fire to capture my punishing experience, which had left me strangely ecstatic. My ordeal, I told loved ones gathered around my hospital bed, felt like “a cross between a brutal barroom beating and a spiritual awakening.”
I felt this way even though I’m a profoundly unreligious person. Despite my thoroughly secular identity, I felt transcendent. I had been stuck in a late midlife trough, bent with obligations and woes, when the lightning bolt cracked open my head, letting in a flood of light. My stroke did not just change my life. It saved my life.
In Between Heaven and Hell, I tell the “Story of My Stroke”—before, during, and after life on the stroke ward. I know that I’ll never write this intimately again. I wanted to inspect not just myself but the worlds of politics, journalism, book publishing, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood, in which I’d spent so many intense—and stressful—years. I also wanted to make some sense of why—if there WAS a why—that I was still alive and still some version of myself.
I try to convey what it’s like to have a stroke, and to survive one. Or rather what MY stroke felt like. Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, I’ve learned that each stroke is unhappy—or terrifying and hallucinatory—in its own way. Different strokes for different folks.
If you have survived something as profound as a medical trauma, you must not try to return to your old life. That life is gone forever. But as I write, the rupture with your past can also be a kind of rapture. Your new life has begun, and it can be deeper.
In my experience, there are no grand lessons to be gleaned from survival. Some die, some survive relatively intact. Suffering is meaningless, as cancer patient Christian Wiman has written in his own memoir. The only power left to us as victims of medical trauma—of life—is what concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl described in Man’s Search for Meaning as “the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude” in the most dire circumstances.
And so I choose to live whatever is left of my dwindling life with what I call a “stoic exuberance.” I’m a child of the 1960s, so I belong to no church or state—my philosophy collage has been pieced together from many sources and mentors, but they all share my stoic exuberance about life and death: Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne, Camus, Thomas Merton, Ram Dass, George Harrison.
Harrison—“the deep Beatle”—is said to have prepared for death his entire adult life. George knew that “life flows on within you and without you”—a mind-blowing and expanding concept for a 15-year-old like me when I first heard that haunting song on the Sgt. Pepper's album. But Harrison, who died of lung cancer at 58, also thoroughly enjoyed this material world, happily indulging in all the pleasures afforded a world-famous rock star. He saw no contradiction between a life fully lived and a life with a termination date—at least in this reality.
My memoir is an appropriately short book. Whatever wisdom about the meaning of life and death I have to convey is condensed and, by design, entertaining to read. But in telling my life story in a simple but thoughtful way, I try to arrest readers’ attention. Like the late Ram Dass—a spiritual guide for my generation, who also suffered a stroke at 66 and survived—I’m telling people to Be Here Now. Stop. Reflect. Remind yourself that yes, life goes on within and without you. Make your life—and death—mean something.