Biography Speculates Emily Dickinson Had Epilepsy Lyndall Gordon's Lives Like Loaded Guns explores the family secrets of the reclusive 19th-century poet. Gordon theorizes that Dickinson may have been epileptic, and describes the multi-generational family feud over the posthumous publication of the poet's work.

Biography Speculates Emily Dickinson Had Epilepsy

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The time has come to dispel the myth of Emily Dickinson as a quaint and helpless creature, disappointed in love, who gave up on life. So says my guest Lyndall Gordon, the author of the new book "Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds."

The title comes from a Dickinson poem with the line: My life had stood a loaded gun. The book speculates that Dickinson had epilepsy, which might explain her seclusion and some of the images in her poems.

The book also documents the family feud over the poet's brother's long-term adulterous affair which divided the family, and after Emily Dickinson's death, extended into a feud over her legacy and the publication of her poems.

Lyndall Gordon is also the author of "Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft" and "Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life."

Lyndall Gordon, welcome to FRESH AIR. You introduce a lot of new biographical information - certainly new to me, anyways - in your biography of Emily Dickinson. So I'd like to start by asking you to read a poem that has new meaning for you now that you've done all this research.

Ms. LYNDALL GORDON (Author): I'm going to read the poem that begins: I tie my Hat - I crease my Shawl, because this is a poem that shows the duality of Emily Dickinson's life. It may not come as a surprise to listeners that she was a domestic woman, but she does, in this poem, describe an alternative existence written with a capital E. And she doesn't say exactly what that existence is, but there is a certain amount of evidence that she suffered from epilepsy, and it would have -makes sense, then, that she led a secluded life. I think that epilepsy is a more sensible reason for seclusion than the usual idea that she suffered from disappointed love. And so here is the poem.

(Reading) I tie my Hat - I crease my Shawl. Life's little duties do -precisely - As the very least were infinite to me. I put new Blossoms in the Glass - And throw the old - away. I push a petal from my gown that anchored there. I weigh the time 'twill be till six o'clock. I have so much to do. And yet - Existence - some way back - Stopped - struck - my tickling - through.

That's not the complete poem, but I wanted to stop there because the last two lines - the couplet - breaks in upon this domestic existence, and I think her punctuation is dramatically important. Every word in that last couplet is pushed apart by dashes, as though there's something beyond what she can actually express.

And although I don't want to be reductive, I think that her existence is, first and foremost, obviously, the life of poetry. It is also the secluded existence, the suffering existence, and in some way, an exultant existence because her handicap - or whatever we want to call it - was connected with her visionary life.

GROSS: Yes. I think there's been a lot of writing that epilepsy is sometimes accompanied by visions.

Ms. GORDON: That's right. And I, myself, you know, don't know the physiology of it, but I think that there is a change in the pathway of the brain. Very little is understood as yet about the brain. I understand from neurologists, scientists, that this is a century in which a lot more about the brain will be known. But to go back to this punctuation - the dashes that struck her contemporaries as ignorant and impossible, and something that editors had to correct - actually gives her writing a kind of spasmodic rhythm.

Spasmodic was used in a pejorative sense by her mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. When he first read her poems, he said they're too spasmodic and they're too jerky. And in some way, we could connect them with epilepsy. But I think that in our post-jazz age, we understand a kind of syncopated rhythm. And also, I think that we're very sympathetic to what can't be said.

GROSS: So getting back to the poem that you read, when Dickinson writes: existence stopped, struck my ticking through, do you see that as a reference to a seizure?

Ms. GORDON: All I can say is it could be. I think she's dispelling a statement about a woman who has an alternative life. And it is located in the life of mid-19th century women who struggled to do their duty, but are struggling at the same time to control overwhelming emotions because they were supposed to simply behave in a very decorous and controlled way.

And one of the subjects Emily Dickinson is writing about again and again is the fear of loss of control. In this very poem that I've been reading, towards the end, she writes: But since we got a Bomb - And held it in our Bosom - Nay - Hold it - it is calm.

There's that sense that 19th century women may have had that they were suppressing their energies, their intelligence, their emotions in order to be the model dutiful, you know, well-presented woman they were supposed to be.

GROSS: And so the bomb could be like her poetry, her genius, her expression. It might also be epileptic seizures waiting to emerge.

Ms. GORDON: Yes. Yes. I think it's ambiguous.

GROSS: So in the course of your research, you came to believe that Emily Dickinson had epilepsy. What are some of the most compelling medical evidence that you found for that?

Ms. GORDON: Well, there are two forms of evidence. But I do want to precede what I say by an acknowledgment that this is only a guess. It's only a suggestion. I've put the evidence in one chapter out of 18 chapters. It's only an element in a book. And I think that the evidence is quite compelling if we take into account the fact that there is a genetic component to epilepsy, and there were two members of the family in Emily Dickinson's lifetime who suffered from the illness.

The other bit of medical evidence has to do with drugstore records, the way she was treated. The medications she took, they're ridiculous, but they're consistent with what people were given in the 19th century to judge from the medical tome of the doctor who treated Emily Dickinson.

GROSS: Now, you say during Dickinson's time it was considered shameful to be a woman and have epilepsy. It was associated with hysteria, masturbation, syphilis, impairment of the intellect, leading to epileptic insanity. Women were expected not to get married if they had epilepsy. There were some states that had laws forbidding women to marry if they had epilepsy. So as part of your theory, you think that if she indeed had epilepsy, that would easily explain her self-seclusion.

Ms. GORDON: Absolutely. I'm not saying she definitely had it. I can't. And because there is so much secrecy surrounding the condition - and I think the secrecy went on as a common, well into the 20th century - I think that we have no way of knowing for certain. But if it's true, it would explain everything. If there was this stigma associated with epilepsy, the best solution for her would've been to remain in what she called my father's house. She continued to call her home my father's house well after her father's death. And she was protected by her father and her sister Lavinia.

She had a comfortable room. She had the time and space to write poetry. If she'd married, she would've been having a baby nearly every year and she would've had many more domestic duties. I mean, she hated it when she came back from college in 1848 and she had to - it was assumed she would do the same kind of domestic duties. And I think once the nature of her condition was made clear, I would guess after she first consulted a very eminent physician, Dr. Jackson, I think that her father indulged her - rightly so - and allowed her to follow her - what would make her happiest.

GROSS: Would you read a poem that you now interpret as possibly being a description of her epilepsy?

Ms. GORDON: Yes. Now, I must preface this by saying that she uses I. She uses the confessional first person a lot in her poetry. And I think one's got to be careful that, at times, what she herself told Mr. Higginson that he mustn't trust her I, that she was playing dramatic roles at times.

GROSS: Higginson was her literary mentor and editor.

Ms. GORDON: That's right. But I do think that there are certain poems, and I'm going to read one, where she is talking in the first person about her own experience.

(Reading) I felt a cleaving in my mind, as if my brain had split. I tried to match it, seam by seam, but could not make them fit. The thought behind, I strove to join unto the thought before. But sequence raveled out of sound like balls upon the floor.

GROSS: That's really terrific, and you don't need to have epilepsy to identify with the feelings that are stated there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GORDON: Yes. We might well all experience...

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. GORDON: ...that disconcerting feeling that we are not being as ideally logical as we'd like to be. But I think that epileptics would feel that sense of disorientation after an attack.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lyndall Gordon, and she's written a new book about Emily Dickinson called "Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds."

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about what you've learned about Emily Dickinson and her life and her family.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Lyndall Gordon. We're talking about her new book "Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds."

A good deal of your book is devoted to the split within Emily Dickinson's family, when her brother - her married brother - fell in love with a much younger woman and she became his mistress, and his wife found out about it. His wife had been Emily Dickinson's - or at least one of her most devoted readers.

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

GROSS: So, you know, the family took sides over whether they sided with the mistress or with the wife. And then when Dickinson died, these two women had a feud over Dickinson's legacy and her poems. These are fascinating stories you tell. So let's start with the story of the mistress, Mabel Todd...

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

GROSS: ...who came to town with her husband, who was coming to Amherst to teach astronomy.

Ms. GORDON: That's right.

GROSS: So how did she, at the age of 27, meet Austin Dickinson, who was in his 50s?

Ms. GORDON: Well, yes. Austin Dickinson and his wife, Susan, were the social leaders of the town. And Austin Dickinson was called the Squire. He inherited the title from his father. And he was a man of grave bearing and great aplomb, and nobody would have suspected looking at him, as he strode, you know, through the town tapping his cane, that he would ever fall into the folly of passion.

But what I would say is that behind every character - Austin Dickinson, behind Mabel Loomis Todd, behind Susan Dickinson, the wife - there's a lot of history behind each character, and it's very hard to convey this quickly. But Austin Dickinson's marriage was not entirely happy. Susan Dickinson was somebody who had suffered a terrible shock at the age of 20 when she - she was an orphan, and her most beloved sister, the one who'd taken her mother's place, died just after childbirth.

Susan didn't want to marry. She was an intelligent woman who tried to find other means of supporting herself so that she didn't have to marry, but she was unable to do so. And Austin was the most eligible bachelor in town. I may say, if you look at his picture, he is incredibly handsome in a Byronic sort of way.

And Mabel Todd, too, had an abyss behind her in that she married a man who was a secret philanderer, but she hoped her love would purify him. And that was an innocent and rather sweet thought, but it didn't happen. And he tugged her into acceptance. But as the years passed, she did want fidelity. And she says in her journal that when she looked into Austin Dickinson's blue eyes, she saw a man who would be forever faithful.

So it may seem strange that he fell into this adultery with Mabel Loomis Todd, but he was, by nature, I think, a faithful man - but unhappy, as I said, in a marriage that was probably sexually not compatible.

GROSS: Emily Dickinson had been very close with Susan, her sister-in-law.

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

GROSS: And Susan was a devoted reader of Emily Dickinson.

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

GROSS: Emily Dickinson shared her poems with very few people.

Ms. GORDON: She sent 276 poems next door to Susan Dickinson. That was more than twice the number she sent to anyone else. And she affirmed, in letters, that Susan Dickinson was in the know. She said, you know. She gave assent to Susan Dickinson as her preferred reader. And Susan Dickinson was a bookish woman. I think she bought about two to 3,000 books in her lifetime. She was somebody who read the best, I mean, even better books than Emily Dickinson herself in her youth.

She read the real classics, like the Brontes and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot - and she and Emily Dickinson were reading together. So she's a terribly important person in Emily Dickinson's life, and Emily Dickinson adored her. All we can be sure about is that there was this huge bond between the two women and that Mabel Loomis Todd didn't have that bond with Emily Dickinson.

GROSS: Mabel Todd, the mistress, ended up becoming a believer in Emily Dickinson's poetry.

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

GROSS: How did she find out about the poetry? How did she become so confident that it was brilliant?

Ms. GORDON: Yes. Yes. Well, I think that very soon after Mabel Loomis Todd arrived in town in 1881, the Dickinsons called on her, and then she was visiting their house very often. Really, the truth is that Susan Dickinson initially took her up as a reader, an accomplished woman. Susan Dickinson wanted to mix with readers and accomplished people, and Mabel Loomis Todd was accomplished not only as a reader and writer - she published pieces in magazines - she also was a singer. She had trained at the Boston Conservatory of Music. She sang in the church choir. She sang solos. She could paint flowers to professional standard. So Susan was bowled over by this young, accomplished woman who arrived in town and longed to be friends.

It was Susan who I imagine showed Mabel Todd Emily Dickinson's poems. And I think that Mabel Todd had the intelligence to see at once that these were poems of genius. She would also have been influenced by Susan's view that these were poems of genius.

GROSS: So we've been talking about how Emily Dickinson's brother had a very long affair with a younger woman, although he remained married to his wife Susan. And after Emily Dickinson died, Susan, the wife, and Mabel Todd Loomis, the mistress, feuded over the editing and publication of Emily Dickinson's poems and Emily Dickinson's legacy. How old was she when she died?

Ms. GORDON: She was 55. She died early, and it was in May 1886.

GROSS: So how did Susan and Mabel start feuding about who had the rights to those poems and how they should be published?

Ms. GORDON: Well, it would have seemed natural to everyone that Susan -who had been Emily Dickinson's support as a poet and keenest reader -should be the one to edit and publish the poems. And it must be said that Susan tried immediately. After Emily Dickinson's death, she sent a poem to the foremost New York editor of the day, Richard Watson Gilder, the editor of Century Magazine. But, alas, he rejected Emily Dickinson's poem.

Now we don't know what happened to Susan at that moment. There's no evidence. But my guess is that there is Susan, an intelligent, bookish woman in a provincial town who's never had anything to do with the publishing world before. My guess is that Susan was very daunted by this rejection. And she didn't do anything for a while.

And nine months after Emily Dickinson's death, Mabel Loomis Todd, who was, as I said before, a professional. She was used to dealing with magazine editors - tempted Lavinia by acquiring a typewriter and asking Lavinia if she should type up say, three of Emily Dickinson's poems to see what they looked like in print. And, of course, Lavinia was absolutely delighted.

And it's possible to follow what Mabel did in her voluminous journals and diaries. She kept both. So you can see that, you know, every few days, she typed up a few of Emily Dickinson's poems. And she would leave it for a while, and then she'd type some more.

And eventually, Lavinia decided that it was Mabel Todd who should edit the poems. And Lavinia began to take over baskets full of Emily Dickinson's manuscripts and dump them in front of the fire in Mabel Todd's home. So, in the end, Mabel Todd had a huge cache of poems. And this is where we have to admire Mabel Todd. For two or three years in the late 1880s, she had the staying power and the conviction of Emily Dickinson's genius to transcribe and, in some cases, type up on a very primitive typewriter, Emily Dickinson's oeuvre. And then later on, she co-opted a man of letters, this is the mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whose name carried prestige, and he became a coeditor with Mabel Todd.

GROSS: My guest is Lyndall Gordon, the author of the new book "Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Lyndall Gordon, the author of the new book, "Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds." The origin of the feud is the adulterous affair Dickinson's brother had with a married woman. After Emily Dickinson's death, her brother's wife Susan and his mistress Mabel Todd fought over how to publish Dickinson's poems.

So when Mabel Todd succeeds in getting Emily Dickinson's poems published...

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

GROSS: are they edited? Because you complain that, in some volumes, her poetry is edited down. Some of those dramatic dashes that give a really interesting rhythm to her work aren't there. So how are those poems initially edited?

Ms. GORDON: Well, I wouldn't complain of Mabel Loomis Todd, because I think, again, we have to see that in its historical context. She edited the poems in the way that was normal in the 1890s. And that time, Emily Dickinson's punctuation and her off-rhymes were seen to be peculiar, as signs of ignorance, of incompetence.

I think Mr. Higginson did understand that Emily Dickinson had huge talent. But he thought she didn't know how to set things out. And so we might think in this day and age that the pair tampered with the poems in rectifying some of their rhymes, in putting in commas instead of dashes. But I want to make it clear that Mabel Loomis Todd was very careful by her own lights. She was very careful with proofs. She insisted on five sets of proofs, because the typesetters were correcting themselves, and she didn't want the typesetters to make decisions.

She was as careful as she could be in her transcriptions. I think we've got to be very grateful to Mabel Loomis Todd for dredging up this genius at a time when she was unrecognized. And then, of course, after the publication, there was huge public assent.

GROSS: In the feud over Emily Dickinson's legacy, what did each side of the family want?

Ms. GORDON: Well, yes. Well, each side wanted not only the papers that had been unpublished - there was still a vast amount of unpublished papers, even though Mabel Todd, in part with Higginson, had brought out four volumes in the 1890s - masses of papers remained. And each side -each camp - wanted not only to own the papers and publish them, they wanted to own Emily Dickinson. Who was going to say who she was and convey her legend to posterity? And each camp had promoted its own image.

What's interesting is that both images were excessively pathetic. They played up pathos. So the Dickinson camp - that is, in the second generation, carried on by Martha Dickinson, Emily Dickinson's niece -presented a sentimental image of a pathetic Emily Dickinson in a dimity apron who had been in love all her life with one master, one man, and had gone into seclusion because she couldn't have him.

And on the Todd side, Mabel Loomis Todd's daughter Millicent, presented also a pathetic image, but in this case, it was an image that continued Mabel Todd's slander of the ousted wife Susan. And in this legend, Emily Dickinson retires into seclusion because of an estrangement between her and her, quote, "cruel sister-in-law." Therefore, Emily Dickinson quote, "failed to publish."

GROSS: So in the mistress's version of the Emily Dickinson story, it's Emily Dickinson sister-in-law, the mistress's rival, who is the bad guy. She's the villain in the story.

Ms. GORDON: Yes. She's the villain.

GROSS: So where do you see your book fitting into the feud over Emily Dickinson's legacy?

Ms. GORDON: Well, my book is, I think, an attempt not to take sides in the feud, to see how the feud happened, to tell the whole story of the feud, to see the case they were making most eloquently, but actually to see that both camps were promoting legends and that we have to strip those legends away. That's the attempt of the book, to strip the legends away, so as to see a more volcanic, less pathetic Emily Dickinson.

GROSS: Lyndall Gordon, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. GORDON: Well, thank you for having me.

GROSS: Lyndall Gordon is the author of the new book "Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds." She's a senior research fellow at St. Hilda's College University of Oxford.

You can read an excerpt of her book on our website,, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

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