When A Traumatic Brain Injury Has Sex With An Arrogant Mind
Peter Brown Hoffmeister
What’s the square root of invisible?
If it’s 38 degrees and dark, early morning and raining on December 4th, 2014, and you’re biking south through Eugene, Oregon, and a car comes directly from the west (alley to alley, across traffic) you won’t see the car until it is about to hit you. How much time will you have? Half a second? An eighth of a second?
The car will appear in the peripheral vision of your right eye, and the left side of your brain will light up, sending warning messages from your thalamus to your amygdala. This is what scientists call “the low road response,” fight or flight. Your brain wants you to kill, to run away, or to mate quickly before you die.
Your sensory cortex will try to engage but there will be no time for its signals to travel to the hippocampus. You will flip over the back of the car and be on the ground before your brain can put the fear stimulus into context. There will be no correlations, no similar memories to associate, no measured neural response. Just metal and asphalt.
Your conscious brain will turn off as if someone has flipped the breaker in the garage, and you will enter into a lucid dreaming state. There will be something about your childhood:
Car Accident = Traumatic Brain Injury = That One Summer Afternoon, Swimming At Dark Lake In Central Oregon, The Salamanders Writhing On The Wet Slick Of A Log.
I signed a two-book novel deal with Knopf, Random House in November, 2014. On December 4th, 2014, I was hit by the car.
My helmet was broken. I was knocked out and I lay on the ground. This is not something I remember, but people told me that it was true, and I will have to believe them. I remember standing afterward. I kept begging to go to work. I said, “I have a class to teach. Take me to school.”
The driver who hit me gave me a ride to the school where I teach. But I didn’t teach my classes. I collapsed in the office and the office manager called medical transport. I was taken to the emergency room.
The rest of December is fuzzy. Migraines like funnel clouds over Kansas in July. I took Oxycodone and didn’t watch any TV or movies for two weeks, letting my brain heal. Reading is perhaps not good for a healing brain but I read Lorie Moore’s Bark, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and Alice Monro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. I could only read for half an hour at a time. I trudged slowly through the hip-deep snow of books. Took naps in between reading sessions. Drank a lot of water. Drank a lot of coffee. Ate caramel. Arbitrary decisions.
I used to have faith in my mind. I believed strongly in my memory. I was so arrogant in my belief that I wrote a memoir. Wrote thirteen drafts. Perfected my memories. Acquired an agent. Then published my memoir in 2011 with Soft Skull Press, New York.
Question: If memories are printed in a book, are those memories any more true? A prideful man will always answer yes.
My mind was infallible.
But my first moment of doubt came long before the car accident. Fall of 2011. I read as part of a two-author book series with the Portland writer Lidia Yuknavitch. We read back and forth, one chapter at a time, Lidia reading from The Chronology of Water, me from my memoir. It was wonderful. I was enraptured. Lidia’s book was sharp, poignant, sad, and brutal, and I was listening to her tell stories, read aloud, laugh and cry with the audience and me.
Then, before reading her third selected chapter, Lidia said, “I don’t believe in true memory anymore.”
I looked up.
She said, “The more I’ve studied, the more I’ve learned that memories are not real, or not fully real, but rather somewhat real, beginning as real and changing a little bit with each telling.” She went on to explain that the telling of the memory then becomes the version that we believe as true, that we move forward remembering the told version of the memory rather than the original memory itself.
I began to research, and this is what I found: Memories are layered compositions, amalgams of true and untrue, made less virginal by each telling as the emotions of the storytelling moment interfere with the veracity of the original events’ emotions. It’s as if every time we take the apple pie out of the refrigerator, we add another crust over the top. Soon there are so many layers of crust that we would have to dig to find the original pie. And now it’s one thick pie.
What does this tell about a nation that’s obsessed with truth? Obsessed with people “telling the truth”?
In high school, my brother and I used to take LSD and shrooms to alter our own mental states as if our mental states were fixed points on two straight lines. Now I see my mind is an expanding universe, the clarity of the constellation Orion burning brightly over the Equator in the southern sky and a black hole growing in my injured northeastern frontal lobe.
On May 10th, 2015, I collapsed in the middle of the night and had a grand mal seizure. My wife found me and thought I was dead. I didn’t breathe for three minutes. My daughter called the ambulance. I was not allowed to return to teaching for the rest of the school year. My doctors wouldn’t allow me to drive anymore.
The neurologist explains coup and contra-coup, the forward backward sloshing of a jelly-like brain enclosed in a bone-hard case. My CT scan shows asymmetry, swelling, too much dark fluid in the right hemisphere. The neurologist points to the scan on the screen and taps a pencil against the dark C-shape of my injury.
If I did an exercise like jumping jacks in the six months after the accident, the jarring motion would exacerbate the swelling in my right frontal lobe. The injury’s hips moved in and out, in motion now, thumping, pumping until an orgasm of migraine washed over the remainder of my brain.
Go back further.
In my undergraduate poetry workshop with a poet-professor named Dorianne Laux, I was the worst poet in the room. This is not false modesty. Each week, we were required to bring a single new poem to workshop. I dreaded my turn because the disparity in natural talent was evident. Other people in the room might become future poets. I would not.
Did I say talent? I used to believe in the theory of talent.
The hypothesis of talent?
I was taught that talent was real. I was brought up to believe in it.
But now I’ve read the work of Angela Duckworth and Carol Dweck. The grit studies, grit as a psychological trait. The renaming of educational possibility and determinations of success. There are key words associated with grit, words like curiosity, zeal, character, resilience, and wonder. And these have proven more effective as determining factors of future success than SAT scores, physical aptitude, or IQ.
But when I was young, my mother and father talked a lot about my IQ score. They told me about Ivy League schools starting when I was in first grade, or about my father’s alma mater, Stanford. But I have to think – post injury – what would my IQ score be now as I sit in a dark room, with blurred vision in my left eye. If I pull up the shade to let in light, I can close my left eye and read. If I open my left eye, I can’t read.
And yesterday, I forgot the word for…
You know that stuff you pour into a bowl? Then you pour milk over the top? You eat it with a spoon? It’s crunchy and cold and…
When I remembered the word “cereal,” I was able to breathe again, able to relax. Lay my palms flat on the table. Nod and smile.
I also forgot the noun for door in Spanish. It’s something with a P.
My great-grandmother, Iza Alvarado Chaves, pretended not to be Mexican in Los Angeles in the 1920s, and lied on two census forms. She didn’t want to be discriminated against or deported. Social commentary: The United States of America has changed SO much since 1920.
Discrimination. Maybe my mind is discriminating against simple vocabulary. Maybe someone is deporting my memories. Where do I have to travel to find my fully functioning brain, a brain that I can trust once again? Is there such a thing as a brain that is infallible?
A brain test:
If you still believe in biology, in natural talent, in nature versus nurture, try this: Find a bright, young, two-year-old. See her natural wonder, her natural curiosity, her zeal. And remember that these are grit words. Then give her an iphone to play with for six months. Every day. Hours every day.
I’ve seen this. I’ve watched her addiction develop. Watched her jaw become slack. Watched her brain boil down to hardened remnants on the bottom of a pan. Watched her lack of wonder, her lack of curiosity, her lack of zeal. Watched her patience dissipate. Watched frustration become her preeminent neural response, her first reaction. And that is only the effect of one, regular small screen in the hands of a bright young toddler. Now think of the myriad more sinister addictions available to us. What will our choices do to our brains as we age?
Or an injured brain?
How fragile is that?
I’ve spent a decade believing in choices rather than talent. Believing in work. Work ethic. A writer should be like a professional skateboarder, failing a thousand times before he succeeds on a single, difficult trick. One sentence. A paragraph. A page. Is there any other way to write? Or at least to write well? A writer must write for hours every day. Draft, draft, and draft again. Then revise.
But this writer needs a brain to do the work, to make the connections, to sift through the sand box of options, of diction, of rhetorical devices, of plot arc.
In the poem “A Hundred Bolts Of Satin,” Kay Ryan writes:
have to lose
and the mind
all the way back.
So has my mind uncoupled? And if uncoupled, has my train crashed? Is it now a pile of mangled iron fragments, too large to be pulled together by a magnet? Too large to organize, to large to place in some kind of ordered pile, to form a common direction? Is there anything as ordered as destiny?
I remember the time when I believed in destiny. Faith in a prescribed future.
When my third book, a novel, earned starred reviews from Booklist and School Library Journal, I believed in my future. Then my fourth book earned starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and with those two books, I became a mid-list novelist. This is the beginning of something solid, right? I took time off from teaching to write more. I’ve considered quitting teaching altogether.
When I can teach.
If I can teach.
But this is what I’m thinking today. This is what I’m considering: Should I tell my publisher that I’ve suffered a traumatic brain injury? And if I tell the team at Knopf, tell my editor, my publicist, my publisher, will they still pick up the option for my sixth book? Will they gamble on the future of my brain, on the future of my productivity?
Will honesty be the end of my ________?
What’s the word for that? For whatever this thing is that I’m trying to attain?
Maybe humility is the virtue that I gain through this experience. Maybe I learn my place on this earth as 1 in 7.5 billion people.
So would the loss of my voice be a significant loss? Does the world really need one more writer?
Do you have any idea how many writers there are in this world? Or just in this country alone?
Here’s a bio that’s not rare at all:
A writer with 1044 followers on Twitter and 653 fans on Facebook. A writer who freelances for the Huffington Post and sometimes guest writes for VICE.com.
Would the loss of me be a great loss?
Most certainly not.
Yet I write. Every day.
I can write. I think I can.
I think I can think that I can write. Or that I can write. I think. IthinkIcanIthinkIcanIthinkIcan. Think.
But does any of this matter?
About the writer:
Peter Brown Hoffmeister is the author of five books, his last two novels released by Knopf, Random House. His novels have earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, School Library Journal, VOYA, and The Bulletin. His last novel was an American Library Association “Best of 2016” selection. He was also the 2015 Spring Writer-In-Residence of Joshua Tree National Park.