The Power of Epilepsy (and resource on seizures)
A number of posts have already mentioned the theme of seizures and epilepsy that runs throughout the novel, with the most obvious examples being Astair’s memory of Xanther’s seizure on pages 242-253 and Tien Li’s seizure on page 522. I find it interesting that these two characters also seem to have been gifted with some kind of special sight or ability. They are set apart in the novel as being remarkable in some way other than simply being epileptic. Tien Li, for example, seems to be renowned as a healer in her community and she is treated with respect and believed to have special powers. Xanther is also set apart as special- even the Narcon-TF9 believes that she is remarkable and says that she can nearly seem to hear the Narcon. I find this interesting, especially because other popular media often gives individuals with certain disabilities a “savant status” (Rain Man and its depiction of autism is a great example) in which they are depicted to have special abilities because of their disability. While highlighting an individual’s abilities and focusing on what they can do instead of what they can’t is definitely a good thing, sometimes media can overdo it and downplay the impact of the disability or even romanticize it. I don’t think that The Familiar has fallen into this trap yet, but I’m interested to see how Danielewski continues with the theme of epilepsy in later novels.
On another note, seizures are of particular interest to me because I worked as a counselor at a camp for kids and adults with disabilities and I saw many, many seizures of many types. Most seizures are minor, very brief, and don’t require medical attention, something that I think the novel skims over. The seizure that Xanther experienced was a much more serious type, probably a tonic-clonic (or grand mal) seizure. The tonic-clonic is what people usually envision when they think of what a seizure looks like. It involves a loss of consciousness, jerking, stiffened muscles, and is considered a medical emergency if it lasts more than 5 minutes (they typically last 1-3 minutes). This resource explains a little bit more about the specific type of seizure that Xanther had and it also has a lot of other information about epilepsy:
Hopefully other people find this interesting because I think that the disability theme throughout the novel is fascinating.