“Sleep Demons: An Insomniac’s Memoir” by Bill Hayes— With a New Preface


Hayes, Bill. “Sleep Demons: An Insomniac’s Memoir”, University of Chicago Press, 2001, reprint 2018.

With a New Preface

Amos Lassen

Some of you might recognize the name Bill Hayes from another book that he wrote, “Insomniac City” which I recently reviewed. It is a memoir of his years with the great Oliver Sacks. This book was originally written seventeen years ago and I suspect it has been reissued because of the success of the later book.

“We often think of sleep as mere stasis, a pause button we press at the end of each day. Yet sleep is full of untold mysteries—eluding us when we seek it too fervently, throwing us into surreal dream worlds when we don’t, sometimes even possessing our bodies so that they walk and talk without our conscious volition.” Bill Hayes explores the mysteries of his own sleep patterns and has decided, “I have come to see that sleep itself tells a story.

Hayes has been plagued by insomnia his entire life. The science and mythology of sleep and sleeplessness form the backbone to Hayes’s narrative of his personal battles with sleep and how they colored his waking life. He shares stories of fugitive sleep through memories of growing up in the closet, coming out to his Irish Catholic family and then watching his friends fall ill and die during the early years of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco and finally finding a lover. His stories are an erudite blend of science and personal narrative and they serve as an introduction to the topics for which Hayes has since become famous, including art, Eros, city life, the history of medical science, and queer identity. 

 The book is part reflection on his own lifelong turmoil with sleep and part inquiry into the worlds of sleep research, psychology, medicine, mythology, aging, and mental health.” Hayes brings memoir, history, and science together and pulls them apart again in a book that switches genre and subject. We have fascinating research and memoir of a gay man who grew up in a household filled with Ireland, Catholicism, and the military. Hayes brings together

his coming-out and queer-sex stories within the overarching theme of sleeplessness and in doing so he pushes the borders of gay autobiography, giving new life to a powerful genre. We might say that this is an “obsessional autobiography”.

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