Michele Bachmann's Migraines: Joan Didion Weighs In

Slate's Culture Blog
July 19 2011 6:51 PM

Michele Bachmann's Migraines: Joan Didion Weighs In

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Photograph of Michele Bachmann courtesy of Getty Images

A Daily Caller story alleging that Michele Bachmann suffers from incapacitating migraines is stirring up campaign news today, even reportedly leading to a scuffle between a reporter and two men from Bachmann’s camp. While the Bachmann campaign denies that the headaches would impair her abilities as president, some of her aides are said to have spoken up because “they are terrified about the impact the condition could have on Bachmann’s performance if she actually became president.”

One woman who weighed in on the issue long ago is essayist and literary journalist Joan Didion. In her 1968 essay “In Bed”—which the acclaimed writer once said she believed had gotten a bigger response than anything else she’d ever written—Didion describes the excruciating and at times alienating experience of having these intense headaches:

…I had no brain tumor, no eyestrain, no high blood pressure, nothing wrong with me at all: I simply had migraine headaches, and migraine headaches were, as everyone who did not have them knew, imaginary. I fought migraine then, ignored the warnings it sent, went to school and later to work in spite of it, sat through lectures in Middle English and presentations to advertisers with involuntary tears running down the right side of my face, threw up in washrooms, stumbled home by instinct, emptied ice trays onto my bed and tried to freeze the pain in my right temple, wished, only for a neurosurgeon who would do a lobotomy on house call, and cursed my imagination.

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She goes on to describe how debilitating her migraine headaches could be, offering some possible context for Bachmann’s unnamed aides’ concerns:

When I am in a migraine aura (for some people the aura lasts fifteen minutes, for others several hours), I will drive through red lights, lose the house keys, spill whatever I am holding, lose the ability to focus my eyes or frame coherent sentences, and generally give the appearance of being on drugs, or drunk. The actual headache, when it comes, brings with it chills, sweating, nausea, a debility that seems to stretch the very limits of endurance. That no one dies of migraine seems, to someone deep into an attack, an ambiguous blessing.

Finally, Didion suggests that migraines might reveal something about a person’s character. She writes: “There certainly is what doctors call a ‘migraine personality,’ and that personality tends to be ambitious, inward, intolerant of error, rather rigidly organized, perfectionist."

“In Bed” was later included in the 1979 collection The White Album; you can read the rest of it here.

For more on Bachmann’s migraines, and whether the Daily Caller’s report was sexist, head on over to Slate’s DoubleX blog. For the latest on this story, see the Slatest.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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