A World Without Words

Lotje Sodderland was a lovely, bright, talented, and sociable young woman living in London. In November 2011, she woke up in the middle of the night with an excruciating pain in her head. She was conscious, but she could not think. After stumbling to a hotel across the street, she collapsed on the bathroom floor. Two days later, she woke up from an induced coma. She had suffered a severe stroke (the result, she later learned, of a rare developmental malformation of blood vessels in her brain). Although her face and body are no different, she will never be the same. This is like the Hasidic view of the afterlife, quoted by Ben Lerner as an epigraph for his recent 10:04: “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” In her new world, Sodderland has a visual field loss, with no peripheral vision on her right-hand side, and severe aphasia, a communication disorder affecting comprehension and expression. She also has a film, called My Beautiful Broken Brain, an extraordinary new perspective on trauma and selfhood, and a nearly imperceptible scar beneath her dark blonde hair.

Lotje-Brain-website-361x360In The Odyssey, Odysseus returns to Ithaka after twenty years, as a stranger in disguise. Penelope almost recognizes him. asks for news of her lost husband, but almost recognizes the man standing before her, whom we know to be speaking about himself in the third person. “We have had all kinds of strangers in distress come here before now,” Penelope says, “but I make bold to say that no one ever yet came who was so like Ulysses in figure, voice and feet as you are.” ‘Those who have seen us both,”Odysseus says in Book XIX, “have always said we were wonderfully like each other, and now you have noticed too” This is one of my favorite lines. While his old nursemaid Euryklea is washing his feet, she sees a certain scar on his thigh and “the whole truth comes out.” “My child,” she says, “I am sure you must be Odysseus himself, only I did not know until I had actually touched and handled you.” Odysseus’s scar, which he was hunting on a mountain with his grandfather; Lotje’s scar is from emergency neurosurgery to his parietal and temporal lobes. Perhaps The Odyssey is not about distance from place or the journey home, but rather it is about the indelible pain of being-in-time and persistence of self-recognition. No one else can know our wounds, which are always inside of us. “Whatever pain achieves,” Elaine Scarry argues in her seminal text, The Body in Pain: Making and Unmaking Our World, “it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language.” The world of grief is a world without words.

eb00ad73-53a4-4564-9c3d-7f8ad18a1ab4-1020x914Lotje Sodderland is a lovely, bright, talented, and sociable young woman living in London. She recently spoke at the launch event for her new project, “A World Without Words,”a collaboration with the poet and curator SJ Fowler and material engineer Thomas Duggan. Three-and-a-half years have past. If you did not see her film, you would never know that she suffered a stroke. The film is a lyrical reflection on her experience, with footage from her recovery and therapy, interviews with family and friends, and archival material from her childhood. In the trailer, we watch her struggle to speak, fail to read words, and break down into tears. Her experience reminds us of our own vulnerability; “this could happen to anyone,” as someone says in the movie. “I am different than I was,” Sodderland says in the film. “Maybe I’m never going to be the same.” “I’ve discovered this portal, somewhere where I can get completely lost, an extraordinary new place, where my brain once was.” On display in the Apiary Gallery in London were some hallucinatory drawings. In her visions and dreams, Lotje saw monsters. We may never be able to tell our story, but art is a means of communicating experience. We travel through worlds and bring back scars. Our odyssey ends when we share them.

About the author

Ben Ehrlich

Ben Ehrlich's new book "The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal" will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016. Ben is a 2015 Salzburg Global Seminar fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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  • What a beautiful soul. I understand every word, thought and feeling reflected in her face. I understand when fear of the once known person within disappears to be replaced by any thing you can piece together in your fractured mind. She’s beautiful…

    I had three brain surgeries in six weeks the summer of 2006 due to Chiari and now hydrocephalus. Life was never the same for myself or my sweet children.

    Thank you for this article. It matters, she matters and this project matters…but you gifted it to the rest of us. I was once a writer and you, as well as this beautiful soul, make me want to return to the wonder of words.

  • I thoroughly enjoyed your documentary! It was so informative, on so many levels. Your persistence to enjoy and live life on this new level, while bridging the connection to the old is such valuable insight.

    At my church God through Chaos is our theme for this month and what you said in your documentary “My Beautiful Broken Brain”, “I don’t need to return to my old life, in my experience of recovery I’ learned that . . . This is a new existence, a new dynamic, where I wasn’t defined by my limitations but rather about endless possibilities.”

    The whole movie/documentary can fit endless situations most beneficially.

    For that, I believe God has worked through and for you.

    Thank you so much for opening up the world to your beautiful insight and into the process of your beautiful brain!

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