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The Family That Couldn't Sleep


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About the Author

D. T. Max was born and raised in New York City and graduated from Harvard in 1984. He has been an editor at Washington Square Press, Houghton Mifflin, and The New York Observer. For the past eight years, he has reported mostly for The New York Times Magazine. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, and Chicago Tribune. He lives outside Washington, D.C., with his wife, their two young children, and a rescued beagle named Max.


In 1765, Venetian doctors were stumped by the death of a man who had suffered from insomnia for more than a year and spent his final months paralyzed by exhaustion. Over the next two centuries, many of his descendants would develop similarly fatal symptoms, with a range of misdiagnoses, from encephalitis to alcohol withdrawal. Finally, in the early 1990s, their disease was recognized as a rare genetic form of prion disease. The family reluctantly shared their history with Max, who has written about science and literature for the New York Times Magazine and other publications. Max (inspired in part by his own neuromuscular disorder) has crafted a powerfully empathetic account of their efforts to make sense of their suffering and find a cure. But this is only half the story. Looking at prion disease in general, Max doubles back to the English mad-cow epidemic of the 1990s, retracing established backstories among New Guinea aboriginals and European sheep herds. There's enough fascinating material in particular, a theory suggesting that early humans were nearly wiped out by a plague spread by cannibalism to keep readers engaged, but they're likely to want still more about the genuinely captivating family drama. (Oct. 3) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Advance praise

"The Family that Couldn't Sleep is a riveting detective story that plumbs one of the deepest mysteries of biology. The story takes the reader from the torments of an Italian family cursed with sleeplessness to the mad cows of England (and, now, America), following an unlikely trail of misfolded proteins. D. T. Max unfolds his absorbing narrative with rare grace and makes the science sing." -Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Botany of Desire "Much has been written about prions and Mad Cow Disease-nearly all of it is worthless. Thankfully, from the world of journalism comes D.T. Max to set things right. Throw all those other "Mad Cow" books in the trash: This is the book to read about prions-or whatever you want to call them. It's a riveting tale, told by someone with a very special understanding, derived in part from his own strange ailment. Find a cozy spot, clear your schedule and dive in."
- Laurie Garrett, author of Betrayal of Trust and The Coming Plague
"D. T. Max deftly unfolds the mysterious prion in all its villainous guises. Although scientists do not fully understand these proteins-how they replicate and wreak such havoc in their victims' brains-The Family That Couldn't Sleep reveals their historical, cultural, and scientific place in our world. Prepare to be enlightened, entertained, and frightened."
-Katrina Firlik, MD, author of Another Day in the Frontal Lobe "A great book. D.T. Max has drawn the curtain on a cabinet of folly and malady that will stagger your imagination."
- Philip Weiss, author of American Taboo
"D.T. Max has combined the enthralling medical anthropology of Oliver Sacks with the gothic horror of Stephen King to produce a medical detective story that is as intelligent as it is spooky. The villain of The Family That Couldn't Sleep is the prion, a tiny little protein that causes some of the most terrifying, brain-mangling, creepy diseases known to man. Always fascinating-how could it not be, given that its characters include cannibals, mad cows, madder sheep, a Nobel prize-winning pedophile, and, most poignantly, an Italian family cursed by fatal insomnia?-Max's book is also a gripping account of scientific discovery, and a heartfelt meditation on what it means to be cursed with an incurable, and brutal, illness." - David Plotz, author of The Genius Factory

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