A Match to the Heart:
One Woman's Story of Being Struck by Lightning

by Gretel Ehrlich

Penguin, 1995. ISBN 0140179372.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 01/08/2001

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment

This stunning book is about a woman who was struck by a bolt from the blue and lived to learn from it—and to teach others what she has learned. As a story, the plot is really very simple: a woman is walking with her dogs on her Wyoming ranch when she is struck by lightning. Gravely, almost fatally injured, she begins a two-year battle back to health, helped by parents, friends, a doctor, and a dog.

But this almost surreal plot, compelling as it is, is not the most fascinating aspect of this quite remarkable book. What happens when you're struck by lightning? Here is how Ehrlich tells it:

I woke in a pool of blood, lying on my stomach some distance from where I should have been, flung at an odd angle to one side of the dirt path. The whole sky had grown dark. Was it evening, and if so, which one? How many minutes or hours had elapsed since I lost consciousness, and where were the dogs? I tried to call out to them but my voice didn't work. The muscles in my throat were paralyzed and I couldn't swallow. Were the dogs dead? Everything was terribly wrong. I had trouble seeing, talking, breathing, and I couldn't move my legs or right arm. Nothing remained in my memory—no sounds, flashes, smells, no warnings of any kind...When thunder exploded over me, I knew I had been hit by lightning.
You might search through all of the books published in the last ten years and not find a more compelling opening. If you're able to put this book down after these electric paragraphs, Dear Reader, you're a better woman than I am!

If lightning had been searching for someone to tell the story of being struck by lighting, it could not have found a better spokeswoman than Gretel Ehrlich. For one thing, this wasn't the first time Ehrlich had been struck. Years before, riding her horse in the high country, a ball of lighting had rolled across a meadow, surged up the legs of her horse, and coursed through her. "To be struck again—and this time it was a direct hit," she writes. "What did it mean?" For another, Ehrlich is a nature writer with a clear, unsentimental eye and a strong voice. When this life-changing event occurred in 1991, she had been writing full time for twelve years. Her outstanding work had already been published in The New York Times, LIFE Magazine, The Atlantic, Harper's, and New Age Journal, and she was the author of several books: The Solace of Open Spaces (1986), Heart Mountain (1989), City Tales (1986). It's impossible to escape the idea that this lightning strike was inevitable and—in some sense that none of us can quite grasp—intentional.

That's how it must have seemed to Ehrlich, as well. She spent the next months on the brink of death, her nervous system seared almost beyond repair, trying to find a doctor who knew enough about the effects of electrocution to help her heal. That part of her search was facilitated by her parents, who took her to California and located an extraordinarily caring cardiologist who began to work with her. With his help, Ehrlich begins to understand the physical consequences of a lighting strike. As a reader, I was fascinated with this aspect of her experience: what happens in the heart, in the brain, and throughout the body when millions of volts of electricity surge through the human system, short-circuiting the delicate human network. Her need to know became so strong that it later led her to witness open-heart surgery, to become a "traveler, a Marco Polo who had arrived in a place so exotic, few had seen it before."

In her effort to satisfy this compelling need to understand and explain, Ehrlich explores the phenomenon from all angles. She studies the thunderstorms "that keep the global circuits going." She talks with others who have been similarly injured and found a growing network of survivors. She attends a conference and listens to the stories of 65 others, many far more disabled than she, all committed to the need to share, to transform society's ignorance about the dangers of electrical shock. Afterward, she reflects on "those humans who had awakened after being hit and became shamans and healers, and wondered what this new life of mine would be, carved from a ruined body and a ruined marriage, and what special passageways I could hollow out as in a labyrinth of dead ends."

Lightning always follows the path of least resistance, Ehrlich says. It certainly struck her when she was most vulnerable. Separated and preparing for divorce, she was about to leave the ranch she had loved and worked for fifteen years. Her efforts to recover from the lightning strike took her to California, where she spent a year living in Santa Barbara. As she points out, it was an uncanny coincidence: the city is named for a woman whose murderer was struck by lightning, and who later became a saint, the protectress of those threatened by lightning and fire. With her was her dog Sam, who had also been struck, and whose devoted love carried her through the darkest hours of the next few years. "The role of supernatural helpers—guides, ferrymen, or harnessed dogs—stands for the guardian who carries the human spirit forward, whether from death back to life or the other way around....Sam is my guide, my Virgil through these never-ending gaps...that seem to lie before me."

Like those others who became "shamans and healers" after their lightning strike, Ehrlich comes to her own awakening, understanding and valuing in new ways the fragile but durable body in which we all live this human life. And for her, as for many of us, it is the writing process itself that becomes the vehicle for enlightenment. If you are looking for a story of true grace under fire, you must read this. And if you are writing your own story about a shattering life-crisis, you must really read this. It will show you how to go deeply into the experience without being swallowed by it, how to explore the pain without being consumed by it, and how to open the wound and see the beauty of it.

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