The Rules of the Tunnel: My Brief Period of Madness

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Release Date: 
July 2, 2012
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“the . . . condition opened up a new life for him. ‘Amnesia,’ Mr. Zeman writes, ‘is God’s reset button.’”

When the journalist Ned Zeman was a young boy, a child psychiatrist noted that he seemed hypersensitive to bright lights or colors, loud noises, and other external stimuli. To his family, young Ned just seemed a bit more prone to anxiety than his siblings. Years later, Mr. Zeman would receive a diagnosis of bipolar disorder after a harrowing journey that nearly wrecked his career and personal relationships, a journey chronicled in The Rules of the Tunnel: My Brief Period of Madness.

The journey ended after electroconvulsive treatments and the amnesia that is a common, generally short-term result, but an obvious handicap for someone whose stock-in-trade is noting and organizing facts into a coherent narrative. Still, the temporary condition opened up a new life for him. “Amnesia,” Mr. Zeman writes, “is God’s reset button.”

He seemed to have everything going for him when, practically fresh out of college in 1997, Mr. Zeman landed a job at the Valhalla of journalistic aspirations, Vanity Fair, and moved to New York from his native Michigan to work as an editor under the magazine’s eminence grise, Graydon Carter. Among his assigned writers was Sebastian Junger, of A Perfect Storm fame, and it was a story idea declined by Junger that opened the doors to Mr. Zeman’s becoming a staff writer.

He produced a well-received profile of the National Geographic photographer Bruno Zehnder’s fatal obsession with Emperor penguins, one that led to Zehnder’s death at 52, lost in an Antarctic blizzard and frozen to death. There quickly followed profiles of a hard-driving Hollywood talent agent who committed suicide after a spectacular parallel career in substance abuse, and of Timothy Treadwell, the so-called “Grizzly Man,” who, with his girlfriend, was attacked and fatally mauled in the Alaskan wilderness by the animals he regarded as kindred spirits.

Too late, Mr. Zeman recognized the thread running through his journalistic fascinations and spiraled down into clinical depression when a much-publicized story he’d written for Sports Illustrated about a promising African American high-school basketball player was found to contain serious factual errors and had to be retracted by the magazine. Although the errors were later found to lie with faulty fact-checking on the magazine’s part, Mr. Zeman voluntarily resigned and decamped to Los Angeles, leaving behind “the mess,” as he called it. “The word depression never came up,” Mr. Zeman writes.

Mr. Zeman describes the following years, which began with 9/11 and ended with the financial crisis of 2008, as the tunnel of his book’s title, a long, lonely trek marked by willful social isolation, failed relationships, stalled writing projects, and visits to so many psychiatrists that he’s compelled to refer to them by numerical sequence.

There were occasional shafts of light penetrating the darkness as first one, then another, antidepressant took hold before its effects wore off. Finally, a stay at the prestigious McLean Center in Massachusetts produced the suggestion that ECT might work where drugs hadn’t, and thus began what Mr. Zeman refers to at one point as “Electrogate:” a series of 20 treatments during which loyal friends, including an ex-girlfriend and a colleague from his early days at Vanity Fair, rallied around him as a support team and helped fill in the memory blanks post-treatment as his short-term memory began to return.

The self-flagellating memoir has become commonplace on today’s nonfiction book lists, but Mr. Zeman’s journalist’s chops save this one from becoming just another bathetic confessional. He writes in staccato bursts that lend a conversational intimacy to the book, and adopts the peculiar technique of referring to himself throughout in the third person, a potentially coy device that serves to emphasize the depersonalization that accompanies clinical depression. A further gift is the humor—sometimes bitter, sometimes merely wry—with which he tells his story, complemented by his gift for condensing perceptions into a pithy phrase. Here is his impression of his first sight of Kodiak Island, Alaska, his jumping off point for his research on Timothy Treadwell: “Looks like the love child of Ireland and Hawaii.”

If a reader’s patience is tried by Mr. Zeman’s lengthy digressions about the subjects of his best-known magazine pieces, it is rewarded as he deftly ties those subjects’ manias and fears to the ones growing darker within himself. “Some fifty-five million Americans have a mood disorder,” Mr. Zeman notes at the end of the book, “and every one of them feels a little less lonely when they meet a fellow traveler.” For those 55 million, Mr. Zeman’s book may serve as a welcome rest stop on that difficult journey.