Lyndall Gordon’s recent biography, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds (2010), tells with high verve the story of generational infighting over poet Emily Dickinson’s posthumous presentation to the world. Equally dramatic is Gordon’s hypothesis that Dickinson suffered from epilepsy, which led Gordon to seemingly solve the ineffable mystery of Dickinson’s reclusion, a conundrum in her own time and still so in ours. Gordon’s startling diagnosis has been commended by book reviewers and on talk shows. Her hypothesis is based on two lines of inquiry. First, she avers that a compound called glycerine, which Dickinson took regularly in the early 1850s, was an anti-epileptic, basing this notion on its presence in a mixture containing the soporific chloral hydrate, a prescription first advised for epilepsy some two decades later. Second, Gordon proposes a genetic strain of epilepsy in the Dickinson family. In the process, Gordon recruits Dickinson’s various illnesses to her hypothesis. This article refutes Gordon’s claims on scientific, clinical, and biographical grounds. It reviews Dickinson’s medical history to establish a differential diagnosis, in which epilepsy is considered and rejected.


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pp. 371-386
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