Head Cases Stories of Brain Injury and Its Aftermath

Michael Paul Mason

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

320 Pages



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Michael Paul Mason is one of an elite group of neurological experts who appear in the wake of tragic accidents and illnesses and coordinate care that can last a lifetime. In Head Cases, Mason writes about his encounters with survivors of brain injuries as they struggle to map and make sense of the new worlds they inhabit. We meet a snowboarder whose life became permanently surreal after an errant jump; an "ultraviolent" child who has lost the brain's instinctive check on the impulse to strike out at others; a young man who cannot cry; and an Iraq war veteran whose odd maladies suggest that brain injury will be the war's most conspicuous legacy.

Underlying each of their stories is an exploration into the brain and its mysteries. When injured, the brain must figure out how to heal itself, reorganizing its physiology in order to do the job, and Mason shares a series of vivid glimpses into brain science, the last frontier of medicine. With personal stories as well as clearly written science, he shows the miracles of the brain's workings and the fragility of the brain and the sense of self, life, and order that resides there. Head Cases echoes both Oliver Sacks and Raymond Carver, and is at once illuminating and deeply affecting.


Praise for Head Cases

"In Head Cases, Mason deftly conveys the frustrations and inequities of traumatic brain injury . . . Mason describes the day-to-day life on a brain injury ward, where the staff may wear kickboxing pads into one patient's room, rain gear into another's. He explains that emotional tears, unlike the tears produced by, say, cutting an onion, contain manganese; since depressed people have high manganese levels, one theory holds that crying helps lower the levels. Mason describes a trip to Iraq and its miraculous Balad Hospital, where Air Force surgeons have treated the bulk of the 10,000 traumatic head injuries the war on terror has so far occasioned (and that's just the American heads) . . . Mason performs a valuable service by calling attention to the plight of the brain injured . . . I had come to think of neurological dysfunction as an almost fanciful affliction, its victims like characters in a work of magical realism. Mason has provided a needed, and sobering, account of reality."—Mary Roach, The New York Times Book Review

"In these cases, and several others like them, Mr. Mason's accomplishment is formidable, restoring to each subject a measure of human dignity, achieving through sympathy and curiosity insight like that which pulses through genuine literature. These are not people whose lives have ended, he suggests, only changed, and we recognize in their jagged, altered lives something like allegories for our own experience."—Casey Schwartz, The New York Sun

"As a writer, Mr. Mason stakes out a position midway between Oliver Sacks and Oprah Winfrey. He goes light on the science, presenting his case studies primarily as human dramas. We meet the loved ones, revisit the hometowns, relive in minute detail the horrific accidents that caused the injuries."—William Grimes, The New York Times

"Vivid, heartbreaking [and] movingly written."—The Seattle Times

"These stories are really engaging and would be enlightening to any neuroscientist who wants to find out more about the human outcomes of brain injury . . . A passionate series of vignettes that sympathetically illuminates what happens to people after brain injury."—Nature Neuroscience

"Mason's words will touch your heart but more importantly open your eyes to the harsh realities endured by mounting numbers of traumatic brain injury survivors."—Michael Wallis, Tulsa World

"Mason visited Iraq, so his experiences will give readers information they've been sheltered from too long. But no less vivid, heartbreaking or movingly written are other cases. In 'The Hermit of Hollywood Boulevard,' for instance, a snowboard crash left a young man with more than 120 seizures monthly. After exhausting his options as well as his family's finances, he committed himself to a psychiatric crisis unit, his only venue for free care."—Irene Wanner, The Seattle Times

"There's no shortage of books on neurological patients with brain injuries, but Head Cases, . . . is one of my recent favorites. Mason brings a unique perspective to the tragic tales, as he's not a neurologist or a neuroscientist. Instead, he's a brain injury case manager based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, so the stories are as much about the bureaucratic maze of insurance claims as they are about the hippocampus."—Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust was a Neuroscientist

"Mr. Mason, with the compassion and astute observation of a skilled case worker, relates story after story that are as captivating and inspiring as they are sobering and heartbreaking."—Dr. Walt Larimore, co-author of His Brain, Her Brain

"Using the words and actions of brain injury survivors, Head Cases poignantly chronicles the everyday struggles, search for help, and hope for recovery after traumatic brain injury. Mason brings educated insight to readers who are blissfully unaware of the life-altering, often debilitating, aftermath of neurotrauma. Head Cases is a must-read glimpse into what life with brain injury is really like."—Susan Connors, President, Brain Injury Association of America

"Mason describes in detail the devastating effects of brain damage, the myriad ways the brain tries to compensate for that damage, and the frustrations of trying to get appropriate care. Mason writes that the patients he represents 'may not even know I exist.' But he is, as he puts it, their voice. With Head Cases, he has also become their public advocate."—Jane Bosveld, Discover

"Mason is an experienced case manager who has worked with hundreds of individuals with brain injuries and their families . . . he has traveled throughout the United States and even into Iraq to write about the 'real people' who sustained brain injuries from various kinds of external physical forces and internal occurrences. Mason writes not just about the injury, per se, but about the unraveling of people and the courage each person had to pull the broken pieces of their lives together in some way, shape or form. As importantly, Mason also focuses on the uniqueness of each brain injury and the vivid glimpses each injury provides us about the inner workings of the human brain."—Ron Savage, Brain Injury Professional

"Dispassionate neuroscience meets fierce advocacy in this heartbreaking but hopeful look at the little-understood world of those who suffer traumatic brain injuries . . . Mason's goal here is to convey awareness, not to uplift. Intriguing case histories, related with a personal passion that sets Mason's book apart from Oliver Sacks's cooler writings on the subject."—Kirkus Reviews

"Mason succeeds in giving a strong voice and profound humanity to its victims . . . This unusually well-written, disturbing book is highly recommended."—James Swanton, Harlem Hospital, Library Journal

"Mason writes with passion and urgency about the unheralded but compelling stories of Americans injured in car accidents or through a miscalculation while snowboarding . . . He also tells stories of tremendous courage and perseverance as survivors and their families work to re-establish the everyday skills they had before their injury. The strange effects of neurological damage will draw fans of Oliver Sacks, but Mason's poignant and caring accounts of his clients' lives are sure to touch the hearts of a wide range of readers."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt


The first thing I tell her is that I cannot help. Her son Jake is thirty-four, my age. His gray, bruise-flecked limbs are splayed out on a bed before me; his mouth is dry and agape. I know I cannot help him. I cannot file a lawsuit...

Read the full excerpt


  • Michael Paul Mason

  • Michael Paul Mason, born in 1971, is a brain injury case manager based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He writes for Discover magazine.

  • Michael Paul Mason ©Michael Cooper
    Michael Paul Mason