Visit theallusionist.org/eclipse to read about and hear this episode.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, find language sitting by a well, falling in love with its own reflection.
Coming up in today’s show:
LAUREN MARKS: I personally did not want to die in the middle of a really boring, really silly 1980s power ballad in a dingy bar.
HZ: Well, we all have our limits, and this was Lauren Marks’s. Hear her story in a moment.
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LAUREN MARKS: Words were everything in my life. It was all day, every day, on stage, off stage, on the page...
HZ: Let's go back to what happened.
LAUREN MARKS: Oh, sure.
HZ: How old were you?
LAUREN MARKS: I was 27. I was an actress and a director and a PhD student in New York. And there was absolutely no warning. I mean, I was actually performing on stage when it happened. I went onstage to perform a karaoke duet.
HZ: What was the song?
LAUREN MARKS: It was ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’.
HZ: Wrong organ.
LAUREN MARKS: I know… No, it's OK to laugh, because I just really am glad I didn't die doing that.
BONNIE TYLER: I really need you tonight. Forever’s gonna start tonight. Forever’s gonna start to-
LAUREN MARKS: So anyways, I was on stage, I was singing...
BONNIE TYLER: Once upon a time I was falling in love, now I’m only falling apart...
LAUREN MARKS: ...I was up, singing the song... and then I was down.
BONNIE TYLER: Nothing I can do, a total eclipse of the [MUSIC iNTERRUPTED BY HOSPITAL MONITOR BLEEPS]
LAUREN MARKS: I collapsed immediately, because it was not known to me at the time but an aneurysm had ruptured in my brain and it was hemorrhaging.
HZ: An aneurysm is a weakness in a blood vessel in the brain. It’s estimated that one in fifty people have such a weakness, but most will never even know about it - only around 1 in 25,000 aneurysms causes trouble.
As she later found out, Lauren Marks had two, and one of them was that 1 in 25,000. It ruptured, and she had a stroke.
Karaoke interrupted, Lauren was taken to hospital. When she woke up, she had undergone brain surgery; but something else had changed.
LAUREN MARKS: When I woke up in the Edinburgh hospital, I had very little language: speaking, reading, writing were all dramatically affected. I probably only had about 40 or 50 words at my disposal.
HZ: Lauren had aphasia.
LAUREN MARKS: Which is an acquired language disorder that comes after you have already honed all your language skills.
HZ: Also known as dysphasia, aphasia can happen after a brain injury - a stroke, an accident, an aneurysm.
LAUREN MARKS: It just leaves your language impoverished, depending on what type you have. It just it makes words inaccessible to you.
HZ: At that time, though, Lauren didn’t know that she used to have a full vocabulary and now didn’t, she used to be able to read and now couldn’t, she used to have an internal monologue and now didn’t. And ignorance really was bliss.
LAUREN MARKS: I couldn't have been any more peaceful and satisfied.
HZ: She didn’t have an inner voice telling her to panic - she didn’t have the vocabulary to panic. So she didn’t panic.
LAUREN MARKS: Knowing what you don't know is a really big issue with a brain injury. Language is the organ of perception. So if there is an injury to your perception, your perception can be real off. So in my case, with my aphasia, I didn't know how damaged my language was. I really had no idea. I thought that it was just fine.
HZ: But Lauren’s friends and parents who had gathered around her hospital bed did not think it was just fine. Moreover, they didn’t know that she didn’t know it wasn’t fine.
LAUREN MARKS: But they always assumed that I was experiencing what they thought I'd be experiencing which is like terror and disappointment; desire to get out of the hospital; all those things. But because I didn't really feel any different - I mean, I did feel different, but I didn't feel bad - I didn't have that landscape of terror that would could have been appropriate. But I'm really glad I couldn't think that.
It does happen to differ from people with aphasia. Some people lose their inner monologue and some people do not. I did. So I didn't have that little voice chiming in saying, "Oh, you're in a world of trouble, Miss Marks. You are in a world of trouble..." I didn't receive that message.
HZ: Did you have a better time, only having forty words?
LAUREN MARKS: Absolutely, actually. Meaning I wasn't focusing on the words. When I was it was very frustrating. But when I wasn't, I was experiencing a much more serene perceptual environment.
What I was really embracing was this profound quiet. Externally and internally I didn't have any more murmuring; I didn't have that sort of hamster wheel of anxiety, of like "What am I doing? What has happened? What do I need to do now?" None of that was really engaged, so I just felt really part of where I was. This quiet was absolutely nourishing.
HZ: If other people were talking, could you get what they were saying?
LAUREN MARKS: Yeah, I could understand. That was a very lucky thing. I think probably the best aspect of my condition was I understood almost everything I heard; perhaps I didn't get everything, but I felt like I did.
HZ: You wouldn't have known, if you didn’t.
LAUREN MARKS: Exactly. No, but that's it. You've nailed it. That's the most beneficial kind of injury. You don't know what's wrong with you until you get better. The better I got, the more aware of my deficits I was; that, not so great. It's like the pros and cons to language. When I became more aware of my deficits - so the moments in which I had the least are also the moments when I was worried the least. And there was this sort of period of time in which I became aware that I wasn't being able to say all the things I wanted to say; and that was still not the most anxiety-producing time. The most anxiety-producing time after the aneurysm's rupture was when some of it was coming back, and it was trying to organize it all. It wasn't the absence that was scary: it was the surplus.
HZ: The forty words that Lauren started off with were not all that useful in her situation.
LAUREN MARKS: Paint. Italy. People. Bullets. Vines. They're not things that are…
HZ: Thematically linked?
LAUREN MARKS: No, not thematically linked. You don't start with the vocabulary of someone commensurate with your language skills; you don't start with the vocabulary of a four-year-old. You start with the experience of a 27-year-old woman. And so you get a hodgepodge of crazy times. Catherine the Great was pretty high up; she came in first like month.
HZ: Do you have a particular affiliation for her?
LAUREN MARKS: Nope. But here - Cathrin, it's not spelled correctly - Catherine, Prussia, horse donk.
HZ: Catherine. Prussia. Horse donk. Lauren’s brain had retained the Prussian-born Empress of Russia who, according to rather lurid myth, had died while trying to have sex with a horse. Catherine the Great had actually died of a stroke. But Lauren’s mind probably didn’t make that connection deliberately - who knows why those particular words stuck.
LAUREN MARKS: The words that stick are usually nouns for concrete things. But what's not on here is any words for feelings: sad, scared, confused.
HZ: Lauren was also missing what she calls ‘the connective tissue’ of language.
LAUREN MARKS: Like 'of', 'through', 'inside': some of them are small words and some of them are modifying words, they just don't mean as much.
HZ: But Lauren only realised something was seriously amiss when, a few weeks after the stroke, she opened a book - the letters just looked like lumps. She worked with speech and language therapists, in Edinburgh and then in her hometown of LA, where she’d moved back in with her family. Over the next several months, she practised reading and writing, making painstaking progress.
LAUREN MARKS: Slowly, slowly I became able to read very small bits and for a while only one sentence a day, one paragraph a day, a page a day.
HZ: To aid her language recovery, Lauren kept a journal, and spent several hours a day writing an essay about what had been happening with her. Her language skills were improving but it wasn’t easy. The three-page essay took her six months to finish. But at least with reading and writing, Lauren could control the pace of language - if she couldn’t process words fast, she could read them slowly. However she couldn’t do that when someone was speaking to her; too many words, too fast; so the supportive presence of her family and friends could sometimes be overwhelming.
LAUREN MARKS: Yes! They were stressful. Because they're loud to me. Almost anybody who has aphasia will tell you that it's like suddenly there are so many levels of sound and you're taking in this whole world of sound and you're trying to manage it all. And some of it is language - language is a big part of it; but there's just like clinking and clanking and there's echoes, and it's nauseating trying to focus and narrow to have the simplest of conversations. It was like a carnival; a loving carnival, it is nice to be surrounded by so many great wonderful supported loving people. But I would just tune off and they would be prodding me to do certain things. And they assumed that I was depressed; but I wasn't depressed, I was exhausted. I was exhausted by them. The only time I was really like relieved as kind of when they left. They would just sit here and they would ask me, "Do you remember this? Do you want to say that? Try this, say this." All of it seemed...ugh.
Everyone kept saying, “You’ll be back to your old self again.” And I just didn't like that. Because I felt so good. And they were talking about a different person, and I couldn't remember that person's life very well. And I liked what I was doing; I liked that I was able to engage with language as I had as a kid, you know, I liked it. I don't want to go back to that old self again - like, I don't know who that person was. But this is a beautiful time; this gift of wordlessness is a once in a lifetime experience, and I am getting better, and I want to get better. But do you know the price that I'm paying? That the price is clutter.
And now of course I can see how narrow that view was. I also had lost all of my abilities, and my parents were shouldering the entire burden of my life and livelihood and my care.
HZ: Lauren’s relationships with her family and friends and boyfriend were affected by her aphasia - not only because her abilities to communicate had changed and so had she, but also because she couldn’t recall a lot of their shared history.
LAUREN MARKS: Well, the memory was an issue; but it wasn't because I became amnesiac. I just think language is a part of it. I mean, language has so much call and response and there's so much emotion embedded in that.
HZ: And when you’re close to someone, over the years of knowing each other, you build up a kind of mutual language - little cues, shared references, vocabulary that means something particular in the context of your relationship. Lauren’s loved ones still had that, but she didn’t.
LAUREN MARKS: There are ways you comfort each other in language. There is a lot of shorthand; there's inside jokes - and all of those were gone. And when people would do those things assuming that I felt the same way, I was profoundly alienated by it. I just thought really from a distance like, “Oh they think that's funny. I get that. I get that they think that's funny.”
HZ: So you registered it, but weren't feeling it.
LAUREN MARKS: Definitely not feeling it, and no speed to it. No fluency to it. So it was just like… As soon as you’re one step out of line... I'm not saying that any one of my friends wanted wanted me to feel excluded; in fact quite the opposite. But you know it; you know it. It's like trying to run in a river; everything is just pushing pushing pushing pushing; you're making an effort and the effort is something, but it is not the right effort; you should be swimming and you're trying to run. They became aware slowly, the people who were with me all the time started to realize how profound the lack was.
HZ: Did the shared jokes come back?
LAUREN MARKS: Some of them. Yeah. Some of them. But you need to have both the speed for that matter. The joke, even if you understand it, is not so funny if it takes a little longer to get it. You can only appreciate it if it is sort of boiling at the same rate, in the same pot.
HZ: I suppose when it's people that you have a long acquaintance with, often it's just a reference to the fact that you have that bond, rather than just having to function as a joke on its own.
LAUREN MARKS: Right, and you do one fifteenth of the joke, right. You just nod at an aspect of it and that's enough.
HZ: Jokes also often rely on the knowledge that the words are not to be interpreted literally. But this was a concept Lauren could not grasp for quite a while after her stroke. When she was regaining language, she took it all at face value.
LAUREN MARKS: I lost all my idioms. And like every idiom was so visual to me, like “flying off the handle” - I'd be imagining kitchen pots with wings; I was like, nothing with handles flies. It didn't make sense. So it really was like I was a foreigner in my own tongue.So those were those were exciting moments; lots of like, look, English is funny, this is so weird. And then every milestone - and these milestones could be anything from homonyms, you know, “Oh, words have multiple meanings like, you know, you could toast somebody at a party or you can eat toast with jam.” Those were really exciting moments to experience language as I did as a child, that really marvellous and glorious and fun. Oh, another really important one was reading between the lines.
HZ: While reading a short story by Earnest Hemingway, Lauren had an epiphany.
LAUREN MARKS: And in that epiphany I realized, “Oh, it's not about what's written here. It's about all the things that's left off the page, what's not written.” I said to my best friend, “It's like it's something else here. It's like what's not happening,” and she's like, “Oh, you mean like you're reading between the lines” - oh my god. That's it! Like reading - so it's like “Oh you mean like subtext” - SUBTEXT! That word was just like fire works, volcanoes exploding. Subtext.
I was a 27 year old Ph.D. student actress director who had completely forgot the existence of subtext.
HZ: Lauren was having a delightful time getting to know language again; but the aphasia often scrambled her attempts to express her thoughts to other people. And when someone’s outward language usage does not appear to be on the same level as ours, we are prone to making assumptions.
HZ: Did people treat you like you were stupid?
LAUREN MARKS: In the first year, yeah. It was really interesting. Again if I had been sort of working at the same level, I probably would have been offended a lot more. But I was often much more curious. So I looked fine, which was like, you know, a girl with red lipstick who is somewhat hip, at a coffee shop, a couple times like that someone would flirt with me. And then I would say something and I don't know what I would say but clearly it came out like "kerchunkchunkchunk". And I saw a lot of visible gulps. There was a lot of like "Erm...." So I thought "Oh. So that's what's happening. So that that guy thinks I'm dumb. Huh. That guy's dumb." Saved by my own vanity and delusion - vanity and delusion can be a really a very fantastic combination when you're going through a brain injury.
HZ: Nearly ten years have passed since Lauren’s aneurysm burst. And a lot has happened in her life. After recuperating at her family’s home in LA for about a year, she moved back to New York, then to London, then back to LA. The boyfriend she had been seeing for about five years at the time of the stroke: they broke up. Lauren got married; she had a baby, who is now a year old. She worked for a charity for people with aphasia; she wrote a book about her own experience, A Stitch Of Time. She couldn’t go back to acting, because she could no longer memorise scripts; nor could she return to her PhD, as when you’re reading and writing academic papers, if you make mistakes with that connective tissue of language, the ofs and the fors and so forth, it can make a critical difference to the meaning. Her language recovered far more than it does for a lot of people with aphasia. But it was never the same as before.
LAUREN MARKS: When I try to use idioms, they’re still quite off.
HZ: I don't think you're missing much.
LAUREN MARKS: No, I don't think so either. I don't miss them. You can keep them.
Even now, even though we have this conversation and I don't have a lot of word-finding problems, but when I'm writing I still have problems. I still leave words off the page and I put the wrong words in the wrong place. I leave all kinds of the connective tissue of sentences out: I replace pronouns; I say 'I' when I mean to say 'he' or 'she' or 'they'; all those things are predictable. They are parts of the disorder and they're called paraphasias, and they're textbook, they're truly textbook disorders. And ten years later even at the highest level of what I've achieved, it happens every single day.
I have these small things that are really just tiny linguistic hiccups. To me, I love them. I would try to fix them if I could; but I can't, and I don't, and I'm glad that I can't. I don't ever want to forget the glory of discovery. I don't want to make language be ordinary. It's so easy, once you’ve got all the tricks up your sleeve - that's a great idiom. But yeah, the thing that the everlasting gift, and you really have to cultivate it because you can forget it, but I am glad that I remember that language is not ordinary. I want that. I want to keep that feeling.
HZ: Lauren Marks’s book A Stitch Of Time is out now. She’s very fun and funny even when talking about the very high risk brain surgeries she underwent. There’s a lot more detail about how aphasia feels, and how she recovered her language, and how the aphasia affected her friendships, and relationship with her boyfriend. It’s very compelling stuff - you learn a lot about language when you lose it. And I have to say, before I went to interview Lauren, I was anticipating a sob story. I didn’t expect so much joy. Also, her mom made us cookies; wasn’t expecting that, either. Learn more about Lauren and aphasia and her book and see pages from her journal at astitchoftime.com. Not a stitch IN time, A stitch OF time - that connective tissue of language, you see?
Eclipse was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with a score composed by Martin Austwick. I asked him to learn 'Total Eclipse of the Heart', then pull it apart. Martin does nearly all the music on this show, and he’ll be on stage with me for the Allusionist live show at this year’s London Podcast Festival on 16 September. I’m writing a brand new show for it - I did one there last year and it turned out to be the only time I performed the whole thing, so this could be your one chance to see it. Tickets are on sale now, and you get a discount if you buy tickets for three or more shows, so why don’t you go to see some of the other Radiotopians? Criminal, The Memory Palace and Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything will all be coming over from the US, and I’ll be joining my brother for a live Bugle. I’ll link to all of these events at theallusionist.org/eclipse.
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the greatest podcasts around - a slightly bigger collective as of this month. You can now hear full episodes of Ear Hustle, and there’s another new show to add to your subscription. Radiotopia founder Roman Mars of 99% Invisible has launched a new podcast, What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law. It’s fun, short, smart episodes in which law professor Elizabeth Joh teaches Roman and the rest of us about the American constitution. Hear it, and all the Radiotopian shows, at Radiotopia.fm.
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