'The Falling Sickness' in Literature

Jeffrey M. Jones, MD, Neurology of Battle Creek, Battle Creek, Mich.

South Med J. 2000;93(12) 

In This Article

The Terminal Man

Michael Crichton, the author of The Terminal Man,[14] attended Harvard Medical School and moved to La Jolla, California, for his residency. He never entered into practice but has become an extremely successful author. While his writings cannot be considered classic, his books, movies, and television shows are read and watched by many. Crichton writes his stories in such a way as to make them believable. In one of his early books, he raised a stir about a make-believe epileptic syndrome.

The Terminal Man, published in 1972, is a story about Harry Benson, who is a computer expert and is also paranoid, thinking that computers are taking over the world. He is involved in an accident, has a brain contusion, and 2 years later has increasing episodes in which he kills people during what are called psychomotor seizures. The syndrome described by Crichton is acute disinhibition lesion, and the idea is to implant a complicated computer-monitored system in Benson's brain to ultimately control the seizures. Needless to say, the operation takes place, but things go awry and Benson escapes. This leads to a great thriller.

The way Crichton writes leads the reader to conclude that "psychomotor epileptics" are a violent, degenerate group of people with most having a character disorder. As Ozer[9] points out, this led to such an outcry in the neurology world that Crichton added a postscript to the first paperback edition of The Terminal Man suggesting that psychomotor epileptics were no more prone to criminal behavior than other individuals, and that any such purposeful aggression during a seizure would be extremely rare. Nonetheless, the "epilepsy defense" was used many times in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Subsequent studies, with perhaps the most comprehensive review by Treiman[15] in 1986, have largely discounted this defense, but Crichton has left his mark.

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