Shadows Bright as Glass

Nursing Book Club

Shadows Bright as Glass

The Remarkable Story of One Man's Journey from Brain Trauma to Artistic Triumph

By Amy Ellis Nutt (Free Press, 2011)
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Reviewed By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN

In 1988, Jon Sarkin, a practicing chiropractor, bent to pick up a golf ball and felt a massive upheaval in his brain. In fact, a tiny blood vessel had shifted and because of that, the rest of his life was never the same. He is the subject of the book, Shadows Bright as Glass. The author, Amy Ellis Nutt, is almost as interesting herself. She holds two master’s degrees. One is in journalism, which explains her attention to detail. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her investigative account of the sinking of a fishing boat off the coast of New Jersey last year. (This can be found online through the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she still works.)

The other master’s degree she holds is from MIT in philosophy, which also tells us a lot. Nutt is not just interested in what happened to Sarkin physically, she also wants to understand how it changed his life. How do blood vessels and their location equal creativity? To explore this she delves into the human brain and takes us along with her.

The Mystery of Personality
Shadows Bright as GlassSomehow we just know that what makes us different from every other person on the planet is located in our brain. We know that our brains are different from dog brains. But where is this human element stored? And how can it change? The author follows stories of survivors of traumatic brain injuries or incredible surgeries looking for the answer. We learn from her how the basic understanding of the brain process has changed over time and how modern diagnostic imaging has made this possible.

With this understanding she hopes to shed light on the strange story of Dr. Sarkin. After a massive bleed he developed a compulsion to “make art” as he calls it. His cognitive process had been altered to the point at which he could no longer practice chiropractic medicine nor drive, yet an earlier artistic talent, long suppressed, now takes on a life of its own. He becomes “art boy” — a prolific contemporary painter — and the book follows his attempt to make that transition understandable to himself.

An Aneurysm Away?
Shadows Bright as Glass made me wonder if there aren’t additional talents locked away inside all of us. It left me somewhat frightened that at any moment I might be only steps away from becoming someone else. I’m still suffering post-concussive syndrome after a slip on ice and a head injury last winter. As far as I can see I’m still the same person, or am I? Maybe someone more objective could spot the difference.

Anyone interested in psychology, psychiatry or neurology will find this a useful addition to their list of resources. The more we know about the brain, the more we realize we’re still at the starting gate in terms of comprehension of all it can do, but that shouldn’t stop us from continuing the search.

IMAGE ABOVE: After his massive bleed, Jon Sarkin could no longer drive or work as a chiropractor, but developed a compulsion to “make art.” Pictured is one of his creations.


Christine Contillo, RN, BSN is a public health nurse who suggests joining a book club as a reason to put down trashy magazines and look smart on the subway.

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