Fourteen years ago, Jill Bolte Taylor’s life as she knew it ended.
“She no longer existed. I didn’t have her interests. I didn’t have her memories. I didn’t have any of the details of her life, and so, I was no longer defining myself by who I had been before,” she said.
On Dec. 10, 1996, Jill, the neuroantomist with a Ph.D. from Indiana State University who worked at the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, suffered a stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. On that morning, a hemorrhage erupted and wiped her mind clean. She had no memories of her childhood or the day before. She could not walk or talk.
“I was essentially an infant in a woman’s body,” she said.
Her journey of a brain scientist into a stroke and recovery from it inspired a book, which led to a TED (Technology Entertainment Design) talk.
“That 18 minutes can change a person’s life,” said G.G. Taylor, Jill’s mother about the TED talk.
That talk led to Jill being named in 2008 as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, which led to Jill speaking to groups around the world. Her book has been translated into 28 languages from Hebrew to Japanese.
Now, there’s a movie in the works.
Life on film
“Well, I always thought it would make a great movie, right from the beginning,” Taylor said sitting on a red couch with one of her white dogs curled at her side in her Bloomington-area home. “You know, Harvard brain scientist has stroke, loses her mind, hopefully gets it back.”
Others have agreed.
After Jill spoke at the TED conference, she met actress Meg Ryan, who attended the talk and told Jill that her story would make a great movie. Jill agreed and told Ryan that she pictured the actress Jodie Foster playing her. Ryan suggested she call Foster, but when Jill protested saying, “I don’t think Jodie’ll take my call,” Ryan offered to make the call for her. The next day, Jill’s phone rang during an interview.
“I said to my manager, ‘You take the call unless it’s Jodie Foster, and then I’ll take the call,’” Jill recalled with a laugh, adding she didn’t think she would hear from Foster. “I know this person thought I was absolutely delusional.”
Now the scriptwriter is working to change the book into a film script.
“The ultimate goal now is for her (the scriptwriter) to give Ron Howard a script that he can get excited about,” Jill said.
In crafting that script, the writer has been in close communication with Jill to make it authentic.
“I have spent hours upon hours Skyping with the screenwriter and showing pictures, telling stories. I know she has told me she had over 150 pages of notes,” Jill said. “Every now and then I’ll get these little emails: ‘Would you say couch or sofa?’ And it’s like, ‘OK, I would say couch.’”
Other work also continues on the film. Though the book focuses on Jill’s stroke experience, it also spotlights her mother, G.G., and her efforts to bring Jill back to independent living.
“We don’t know really know who’s going to play the role of G.G., who in my opinion is really the true heroine of the whole movie,” Jill said.
G.G. did have tea with Meryl Streep, when the actress visited Bloomington in November.
“I think she would be very good,” said G.G., an ISU math professor emeritus. “One of the Redgraves was mentioned and somebody else was mentioned, but I think the forerunner at this point might be Meryl Streep.”
Life after a stroke
Jill awoke the morning of Dec. 10, 1996, with a sharp pain in her head, but it wasn’t until her right arm fell paralyzed at her side that the neuroantomist realized what was occurring in her brain.
“Oh, my gosh, I’m having a stroke! I’m having a stroke,” Jill wrote about that moment in her book, “A Stroke of Insight.” “And in the next instant, the thought flashed through my mind, ‘Wow, this is so cool.’”
As the blood seeped into Jill’s brain slowly erasing her former life, she engineered her rescue. Forcing herself to concentrate to make phone calls as the purpose of numbers faded from memory, she found that her language had disappeared when she tried to talk. A co-worker recognized her voice and realized she needed help.
A coworker of Jill’s broke the news of Jill’s stroke to G.G. and asked her to put her affairs in order for an extended stay in Boston where Jill lived.
G.G. still finds it difficult to return mentally to Jill’s hospital room, especially that moment when she saw her daughter.
“When I walked into the room, all I saw was a breathing body,” she said, choking up. “My beautiful, dynamic, vibrant daughter was immobile. So I did the only thing I could do as a mother would, any mother would, I think, with a child who is either in pain or needs comforting. I took off my shoes and climbed into bed with her. I had misgivings whether I was breaking hospital protocol, but frankly I didn’t care. Until somebody with authority told me I had to get out of that bed, I was going to hold her and that’s what I did.”
Even as she held her daughter’s limp form, she wondered about Jill’s future, if she would even live.
“All I knew was that she was my child and I was going to do everything that was required of me to help her survive,” G.G. said.
In that first week after the stroke, Jill had recovered enough to get out of bed and G.G. no longer worried about her daughter’s survival. Instead, she decided to help her live as a functioning adult. The former professor set out to teacher her daughter the skills she needed.
“In essence, I was bringing up a child,” G.G. said. “She had to learn to feed herself. She had to learn to go to the bathroom on her own. She had to learn to walk. She had to learn to do what any child in the course of development needs. But the difference with Jill, and the encouraging part, was what a child would achieve in let’s say two years, Jill achieved in a month.”
“Having been born to my mother was truly my first and greatest blessing,” Jill wrote in her book. “Being born to her a second time has been my greatest fortune.”
From December through March, G.G. worked with Jill at her daughter’s home re-teaching skills that her daughter needed to know to live independently.
“I did what a mother does in bringing up a child,” she said.
“But she threw herself at the whole project a thousand percent and, boy, has it exploded into something that a lot of people have gained some value from,” Jill said. “It’s been a beautiful experience for both of us.”
Though Jill lost her former life, she sees her experience as a positive one.
“Here I’m given this incredible opportunity to lose my own left hemisphere, lose the language, lose my life, lose the details and still be a whole person, which actually felt joy and celebration and peacefulness and then to realize I can recover the skills of my left brain and engage in any way that I want and still be an effective human being,” she said. “But I do it differently now with a different intention.”
Since the stroke, Jill has found that her life’s purpose has changed as she shifted from the left hemisphere to the right hemisphere, moving from the fast-moving, chattering left side to the peaceful, sensory experiencing present on the right.
Before the stroke, she planned to help mentally ill people, like her brother, by conducting post-mortem brain investigations in the lab. Now, she wants to help all of humanity.
“There’s so much suffering going on with us. We’re running a million miles an hour,” she said. “I’ve shifted from being very focused in doing detail work into the bigger picture of humanity and how we can find that peace inside of ourselves based on what we know about the brain.”
As G.G. has traveled the world with her daughter, she sees Jill as answering a new calling.
“Her mission is to tell her story to help other people find something similar in their lives so the world is a better place,” she said.
Jennifer Sicking is the associate director of media relations and the editor of Indiana State University Magazine.