Documentary as romantic science

Huw Green reviews a new film with the tagline 'Her brain is broken. Her spirit is limitless.'

When I teach undergraduates what head injuries have taught us about the functioning of the brain, there is a clean, unrealistic quality to the descriptions available in text books. Clinical neuropsychology operates through the reassuring logics of double dissociation and localisation of function. There is a familiar canon of cases, many of whom are long dead and easy to underestimate; Phineas Gage, “Tan” H.M. The most common response from students is that such cases are “cool”, and I tend to notice a gruesome fascination at play. They are right in some sense; it is staggeringly interesting to see how damage to the brain undoes us, and it is wonderful to learn thereby how it usually holds us together.

But there is also a sense in which my students are wrong. There is nothing “cool” about brain injury, least of all a stroke at age 34, which is what Lotje Sodderland set out to record in this utterly beguiling film. It is a banality to say that, in the clinical psychological sciences, the person can get left out. Saying so is easy, but how do you put them back in again? How do you capture the pathos and disorientation, and the deep sense of the uncanny that accompanies brain injury in a real human being? Despite the profundity of the experience, cheapness and exploitation is a dangerous potential side effect of trying to wring a story out of tragedy.

My Beautiful Broken Brain makes something remarkable out of something awful; like the best understanding gleaned from clinical neuropsychology, this is catastrophe turned opportunity, but the voice is not that of a clinician or experimenter drawing inferences. Instead it is a highly personal recounting of a whole phenomenological experience, from horror to wonderment. Through it all Sodderland’s determination, humour and profound curiosity illuminates everything.

The film opens with the terror of the early stages of a stroke. We hear from her bewildered relatives, who entered her deserted flat (Sodderland had taken herself to hospital, disoriented and alone) to find “faeces and vomit everywhere”. Here is Lotje staring into her smartphone camera, one eye closed, and here she is losing her capacity to retrieve the word “record”, and confusing “nephew” for “niece”; pulling them out of mind after an almost physical struggle. A sociable and passionate young woman, it seems like Sodderland has lost everything (“It’s beyond terrifying” she heartbreakingly says) and it is frequently painful to behold.

But while something is lost, something else has survived. Sodderland retained her film-maker’s desire to record life. “I’m obsessed with recording everything, and I’m unable to remember everything…you’re just terrified that it’s going to get lost”, she tells Sophie Robinson, the director she invited to collaborate on this piece. She thinks in film, and lends her talent to fleshing out the phenomenology of visuospatial neglect (“If I go on the right side it’s like a whole other dimension”), likening her experience to the bizarre universe of David Lynch (who acted as executive producer). She jokes too. Being taken to an inpatient neurological ward for rehabilitation, she downplays the evident dread at her imminent solitude, “I’ve got no sense of space and time, so it’s alright for me”.

My Beautiful Broken Brain is a glorious addition to the genre of “first person accounts”, but it also feels much more than that. Much like “The Man With a Shattered World”, this is self-authored case study; documentary as “romantic science”. It should be filed alongside Luria and his literary inheritor Oliver Sacks, and all psychologists should absorb it.   

- My Beautiful Broken Brain is available on Netflix. Reviewed by Huw Green, who is a PhD student and trainee clinical psychologist based in New York.

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