Books & Products, Society

Migraine in “We Were Liars”

“I cannot recall a time when a narrator has brought this much focus on migraine disease with such apt descriptions,” Janet wrote in her review of the novel We Were Liars.

I had similar thoughts when I read the book a month ago (at Janet’s recommendation). The descriptions were so good that I highlighted passage after passage, eager to share them with you. Here are a couple:

“Welcome to my skull. A truck is rolling over the bones of my neck and head. The vertebrae break, the brains pop and ooze. A thousand flashlights shine in my eyes. The world tilts. I throw up. I black out. This happens all the time. It’s nothing but an ordinary day.”

“‘You have no idea what it feels like to have headaches like this. No idea. It hurts,’ I say—and I realize tears are running down my face, though I’m not sobbing. “’It makes it hard to be alive, some days. A lot of times I wish I were dead, I truly do, just to make the pain stop.’”

Then I got to the twist for which the book is known. The power of these incredible descriptions was diffused by a stereotype that, while not untrue, is a major contributor to migraine’s stigma. So much so that all the positive regard I’d had for the book’s depictions of migraine was gone. For me, no matter how elegant and accurate the descriptions, they can’t cancel out the harmful message I fear the book ultimately spreads about migraine.

I was so eager to have a wildly popular book raise some awareness of the severity of migraine that maybe I expected too much. Still, I’m disappointed. I’d like to say more, but don’t want to risk spoiling the book for anyone — it’s a great read.

That’s my take, which is probably a minority opinion among migraineurs. Have you read We Were Liars? What do you think of how it depicts migraine? (No spoilers, please!)

3 thoughts on “Migraine in “We Were Liars””

  1. I have been suffering daily for twelve yrs with the most excruciating and horrifying pain known to man! I had to self medicate for yrs taking goody powders which eventually gave me two ulcers by the age of twenty five! I had gone from job to job trying to obtain some ounce of normalcy. I had to drop out of college the pain was so debilitating. I have rhinogenic migraines and cluster headaches. I literally feel like the pain is so bad at times that u wish u could die just so the agony would subside. I’ve been to doctors. They don’t have a clue. One just told me it was depression! My relationships have suffered because of the belief that I must be a hypochondriac or I am lazy. They have told me no one is this sick all the time! It’s so disheartening! I am one of the hardest workers and go getters out there. My body is imprisoned my dreams of being accomplished and the life I could be experiencing even now as I lay here on the couch unable to move completely disabled! I can no longer work because of this daily plague and lifelong illness that no doctor will recognize as such.

  2. Kerrie,

    As a longtime migraineur and patient advocate, I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even think to get my feathers ruffled by the reason the protagonist’s migraines began. That’s not to say I didn’t wonder about their origin. I think I perhaps got too creative with my own reasoning, imagining factors that Lockhart may or may not have explicitly said. My impression was that Cadence did indeed have significant psychological trauma, but I had thought there was also a physical trauma at play. (Maybe a concussion in the water or at the grandfather’s house, perhaps? I’m trying to be vague but I think you know to what I refer.) If I ever go back and read the novel for a third time (which is doubtful to happen in the near future), I will see if there’s any reason for my thinking there was also a physical element. I do remember wishing that she had made reference to anyone else in her family having had migraine just to hint at the hereditary element of the illness.

    The novelist is on twitter–I wonder if she’d respond to you if you asked to chat with her about Cadence’s migraine. @elockhart

    Thanks for this food for thought, and sorry I didn’t even think to notice this issue when I read the book twice–I feel like a lackluster migraine advocate at best! 🙂


    1. Janet, thanks for sharing — I was very curious about your perspective. It could just be that different parts stick with different readers and different things push our buttons. I hope most people won’t have the same reaction (or take away the same message) that I did. And it could be that I’m the lackluster advocate, since I saw the negative side of someone’s hard work to demonstrate the reality of migraine!


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