Reviewed by Melissa Oliveira
A Petit Mal: A Mother’s Healing Love Song (Eyewear Publishing, 2023) by Ana María Caballero, winner of the International Beverly Prize for Literature, begins by frankly stating what it is not.
“Eventually, I will make you happy,” Caballero writes, “But it will be a process. A procedure, but not a medical clinical one, not even, entirely, a holistic one, because ‘holistic’ can mean ‘complete’ and procedure here will not be complete.” It’s not going to be, then, a devastating medical memoir about a sick child with some predictable resolution imposed on it; if there is such a resolution, it won’t be complete, and the book won’t depict such a simple journey. Also, it won’t be sad — at least, not wholly sad, and not to the very end. In this way, A Petit Mal sets our expectations very early on for all the things it could be. We should expect something else, we know, perhaps even something more.
So what is A Petit Mal, then, if it isn’t a traditional medical memoir about a sick child? Part poetry, part prose, A Petit Mal is lyrical, beautiful, and sometimes, somehow, even funny. It is creative nonfiction that pushes the boundaries of the form, covering everything from the tiniest chemical makeup of certain drugs to an exploration of the nature of belief itself (in God, in science, in healers). It is the chronicle of a period in which Caballero desperately sought healing for the petit mal seizures her son began having at the age of six. A petit mal, Caballero tells us, is not only a type of seizure but also a name that brings up associations in Spanish: “In the past, tonic-clonic seizures were called ‘grand mal seizures’ and focal seizures were called ‘petit mal seizures.’ As in bad, but only a little.” Indeed, when Caballero’s son starts having these petit mals, they first come during daytime, and they seem smaller, or at least less grandly dramatic, than one might imagine a seizure to be. Nevertheless, Caballero observes that something is very wrong in those moments.
The first seizure she observes while playing soccer with her son, and of this she writes, “I hear from behind boy say, it’s happening. Boy clutches net, net moves with him, and he moves from side to side with net, net that moves with him… I can see with entire eyes entire face of boy at same height and boy is laughing hard, wild, when he says, it stopped.” Things switch back to normal, but all is changed, and the fact that laughter marks the seizures is unnerving, even deceptive. Over time, this typical expression of a child’s joy becomes more unsettling, an incongruous sign and indicator of what could be happening inside the boy’s brain.
After the seizure at the soccer net, they immediately go to the hospital, and this is the first of many trips to healers, each with a different approach to helping with what Caballero calls the “right frontal lobe gliosis vs. dysplasia vs. hypomyelination non-diagnosis”. The family seeks insight beyond what their neurologist, a dismissive and uncommunicative man Caballero calls White Doctor “because of white bald head atop white small face atop white bald coat.” They await a go-ahead from insurance for a second opinion, and in the meantime seek more insight, more answers, from a group that Caballero dubs her “witch doctors:” alternative practitioners she’s known her whole life who are “doctors, with diplomas and such, connected to god. To God. To light, energy, flow.”
Over the course of the book, the family seems to try anything that could help the boy, from Reiki to chiropractors, from changing the boy’s intake of certain foods to halting his use of electronics, from MRIs to biomagnetic readings. The family travels to Colombia for the “Spring Break Witch Doctor 2019 Tour of Bogotá” to get him checked out there, as well as to a Cuban doctor in Guayaquil, Ecuador, with a Russian magnetic machine. Woven into all of this is the ever-present question of whether or not it is safe to administer a prescribed medication called Keppra, which might stop the seizures, but also might cause yet more harm with its side effects. Over time, the number of seizures increases, and before long her son experiences these petit mals at night as well — sudden, loud, upsetting 3 a.m. outbursts that keep Caballero awake the rest of the night with worry.
Though Caballero goes to great pains to say this isn’t a sad story, I found it harrowing at times; the mortality of children, both close and far-off, is often a question here, and at several points it’s hard to say what, if anything, is improving her son’s situation. With her poetic skill, Caballero can almost all too clearly convey the feel of this time; I found myself by turns unsettled, engaged by the rabbit holes she follows, and frustrated by a lack of clarity for the son. Structurally, the (perhaps falsely) comforting forward movement of numbered chapters is replaced by vs. &, x/y and ( ), and Caballero writes that these are “connecting in symbolic ways with the events taking place.” Often, the departure also worked like a reminder that anything could happen, as we were not located in a story offering an obvious progression towards diagnosis. I like how this leads us away from linear resolutions and towards weighing the relationships between the sections.
The variety of topics covered, like the healing modalities tried, is wide-ranging, with a storytelling approach that will appeal to those who enjoy experimental creative nonfiction and who won’t be bothered by a memoir about medicine with elements of belief, spirit and religion. “It was hard,” Caballero writes, “for scientists to believe in accelerated universal expansion, acceleration & expansion despite gravity’s pull. A shift in belief had to occur to accommodate observed behaviors of the real world.” In Petit Mal, you might find a poem about Prufrock’s girlfriend on one page, a diagram on the next, discussions of chemistry, brain science and dark matter a few pages later, and an overview of Marian apparitions later still. But, strange as it is, A Petit Mal: A Mother’s Healing Love Song hangs together in a kind of intuitive way in terms of this larger discussion of belief running between all these topics — a kind of ineffable connection between things that seem at first unrelated.