Original draft of a story that ran much more straightforwardly in Coast magazine and several newspapers.
What if you woke in the mind of an acquired savant, one of barely thirty cases on earth? Leigh Erceg likens it to finding herself on the set of an unfamiliar play, an analogy I’m very pleased to hear because I can grasp it.
Not that the previous night is lost entirely, but it’s written in a more vanishing ink, let’s say, than other people’s. First determine if you’re in a random hotel or (likeliest bet) Heidi’s house in Laguna, or the loft at the studio of the noted sculptor who sees genius in your art. Then step outside for a Lucky Strike. Apparently you smoked before the injury.
After a toke or two, think about physics. The 47-year-old former Colorado rancher, whose brain changed for better and worse when she fell into a ravine in 2009, thinks about the construction of the universe as mathematical strings. Are they like existential loops? I ask when I meet her. “Oh,” she moans, as if tasting Tiramisu. “So many.”
Reacting to some equations on her plasterboard studio walls, captured on film by ABC Nightline, online critics grew snarky. (“It means she’s a genius relative to the TV cue card readers.”) But Erceg feels the spark of epiphany in them.
Sublime behind rock star shades, Leigh Erceg can bring to mind acid-head troubadour Jon Sebastian at Woodstock: trippy, tousled, impaired (are all rock stars a little autistic?)—locked into whatever head-banger anthem a toddler brain hears on its own. Lately, this ecstasy expresses itself through dancing around the loft in her Harley boots, although the sculptor and his crew, whose ceiling is her wood floor, have begun to venture a few words about this.
Driving to meet Erceg, I assumed her creative genius would be fueled by nostalgia, a search for her former self at the bottom of that ravine. My own writing often feels called to a secret, imaginary past. But for Erceg, it’s totally the opposite. Like so many California arrivals before her, she’s busy trying to make up who she’ll be.
She sits in a booth at Tommy Bahama’s explaining the pins on her leather lapel.
“This jacket is what made me hold up through everything. A lot of the pins represent transitions. Like this one tells me maybe I’m a tool?” She points to a tiny, silver-painted wrench.
Keeping the right helpful distance is Heidi Shurtleff, upbeat, demurring, Erceg’s surrogate mother since meeting her on a trip to Steamboat, CO. A retired senior partner at J. Walter Thompson, Shurtleff has also been volunteer president of the Susan Koman OC Breast Cancer Foundation, as well as the Alzheimer’s Foundation, and she’s trying to explain to me Leigh’s challenges in the area of emotional affect. “Like when her brother John died. Her reaction was, ‘What is this all about? I don’t really remember him. [Pre-2009 memories are a loss, likely due to delayed PTSD.] I don’t understand why everybody is upset about it. It’s part of the process of living.’”
“Here’s the thing,” Erceg says, reaching for the French fries. “Someone tells you you’ve got this long to live. What? No,” she disagrees, as if the point is self-evident.
Erceg’s sudden stoppages can make you wonder if she’s talking abstruse math or dumbbell English. “You mean—you’re thinking through whether life just ends?” I ask. “What path are you taking to figure that out?”
“You know. The past, the future. The interlocking of dimensions.” Her voice is a Sinatra shrug. Cosmology: some broad he dated in Jersey.
At moments, talking to Erceg, I feel a drug-like false connection. (Erceg: Everything is its own phase. Me: --And brings in a universe of, of. Erceg: Yes! It does. ) When she sways her shoulders to a song on the sound system, calling out changes (“F-sharp, G major, bring it down”), every note is wrong. (I checked against a piano the following day.)
But her poetic gift has been affirmed by panels of experts—this in a form she’d never been inclined toward in the past.
“Does it make you think of orchids, dancing through time,” she begins when prompted, hoisting a bud vase and launching into some extemporaneous, Byronesque rap. “The petals of flowance design my mind, the laughter of disguises…. But time that passes has no reluctance. Define time through the lemon of laughter, the smell of occurrence. And I do not pass.” Erceg replaces the flower and attends to her fries.
One day, early in Erceg’s Laguna chapter, a cute guy on a motorcycle invited her to a barbecue that turned out to involve no other guests. His baggage included some hazy legal trouble with an ex, and even Erceg knew things could have quickly gotten worse. “She gets annoyed when I tell her she’s chronologically five years old,” Shurtleff says. “But it’s true. She’s devastated if people say they’re meeting for coffee and don’t show up.”
The plus side is that, given Erceg’s emotional bluntness, frustrations can be converted to quick fuel. “When I watch a movie and someone is in deep pain, my sensation is more a ‘why.’ Why are you doing that?”
“In the past year, you’ve learned disappointment,” Shurtleff tells her.
“Well, look at the meanness that you see,” says Erceg. “Look at the political things going on right now, look at the reality shows.”
When someone’s tired kid cries at Tommy Bahama’s, Leigh is an angry duck. “That shit just drives me—I just think that’s rude. Isn’t that rude?”
“Aren’t we born rude?” I ask.
“I don’t think so. I was kind, and I had to learn what rudeness was. It’s not something that has ever been comfortable for me.”
Erceg does relate, however, to the selfish virtue of learning to survive. “The times where I’d wake and say, nothing’s gonna take me down today.”
She is referring to the horrific wake of the accident. The doctors who failed to perform brain scans, misreading synesthesia (“hearing” colors, “seeing” sounds) and scrambled speech as psychosis. Paralysis, facial reconstruction, rods in her neck. The fiancée who drifted.
She’d had a mom. Post-memory-loss, Erceg knows her only as “Jackie,” giver of the bank card, consumed by a husband with Alzheimer’s. “Jackie was hit with a ballbuster,” rationalizes Erceg, “and I was changing.”
The fact that Jackie was still mom in this torture phase is borne out by Leigh’s journals (“Mom, where are you? I would trade any life I have for a few minutes in your arms.”).
She describes months of unnecessary dental work, plus a therapist whose treatment was massages at his home. Erceg cracks: “I may have taken a fall, I didn’t take a stupid pill.”
Some corner was turned when she flushed her psychiatric medications, a decision she says Jackie lovingly supported. She found herself spray-painting doors and showing paintings at the local art walk. Some forgotten athletic instinct led her to the Pickleball courts, where she ruled the competition like a superhero—the probabilities of three moves ahead could be mathematically plotted.
Enter Heidi. Drawn toward shy, the Californian vacationing with her husband crossed the courts to ask about Erceg’s fetish for Steven Tyler shades. Erceg deadpanned, “I’m brain-injured.”
Finding a competent diagnosis was Erceg’s work alone. She wrote to neuropsychiatrist Berit Brogaard, author of The Superhuman Mind, and flew to Miami to undergo MRIs and cognitive testing. She later met behavioral neurologist V.S. Ramachandran at UCSD, turning her fondness for him into one of her canvases.
By then she was beginning to acclimate, immersing herself in the West Coast obsession of leaving bitterness behind, an inspiration she traces to a hostile workmen’s comp deposition back in Colorado.
“They were trying to prove that you didn’t have a brain injury,” Heidi reminds her.
“Oh, I think they kind of lost there,” Erceg says, her voice letting you know how wrong a playground they’d wandered onto.
The outcome of the story is that Erceg, who loves baseball, found herself training her mind’s eye on baseball cards—then-Orioles third baseman Manny Ramirez in particular—and during a break, she fled, returning to hand a pack of trading cards to each of her adversaries.
“Did it change the dynamic?” I ask.
“No,” she shrugs, leaving the subject behind, letting the koan of a baseball card rhyme the cosmos. “It was just something that’s magnificent.”
Up the stepladder stairs in her loft at Jon Seeman’s, Erceg’s drawings make a credible case for a promising career. The heap of stencil-like shapes amounting to Bob Dylan amounts, unmistakably, to Dylan—porkpie hat, UV-sensitive scowl—all executed in a self-taught style that stunned Seeman into memories of the Russian avant-gardist Kazimir Malevich.
“It was like you studied this guy,” Seeman tells Erceg when we join him downstairs. Seeman looks exactly like a sculptor: curly topped, open shirt, twisty mustache. By sheer luck, Dylan is moaning from a CD player—Seeman bumps the playlist ahead to milk the irony of “She Belongs to Me”: She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist, she don’t look back. Alongside the buzz of artists at work—assistants are grinding steel into showers of sparks—you can picture this lyric coming true.
But she’ll need more space, and she dislikes being a burden to others. On her behalf, I fantasize a support group of savants.
“I’ve tried that,” she says. “They all wanna talk about their own thing.”
What about crashing some university class? Professors are soft touches for people just avid to learn. That’s true in the writing program where I teach.
“Oh, see, I’d love to visit a class like yours.”
“I’d love to have you!”
“You would??” Whatever forgotten emotion is conjured by a hand to the heart, that’s where hers goes. “Wow. I could sit there, oh wow, this is—“
“You might be more inclined toward poetry.”
“Don’t discourage me,” she begs. “Don’t discourage. Because I would. Just to sit there. You hit something--”
But I have inner hesitations, which I’m afraid she’ll notice and take personally. I wonder what journalistic boundaries I’m crossing, I wonder if she’s ready, and of course I’m miserable to realize that any such plan essentially volunteers Heidi for more chauffering.
We have not followed up on the idea.
“Look,” says Berit Brogaard by phone. “I think there’s real emotion expressed in Leigh’s poems and art—even if she doesn’t know she’s expressing it.”
Brogaard is a synasthete herself, and what animates her is human potential. Whether white-matter damage like Erceg’s activates stem cells that humanity can exploit. Whether the preponderance of male savants (“The male brain is different, not something people like to hear”) reflects a latency that can be jump-started by a knock on the head.
Which drives me to all sorts of layman’s fears about such a blessing-curse, super-intellect with impaired empathy. I’m thinking of Erceg’s case against crying children—or was that envy? At her loft, Erceg had defended the singlemindedness of Steve Jobs, whatever it had cost him as a parent. “I mean, no one’s gonna—Mother Teresa took that hat, okay? There’s always gonna be someone saying, ‘You didn’t do such and such for me.’ And I say, Do it yourself!”
Brogaard’s prediction: “I think she may become quite famous for her drawings, but trust is likely to be a problem. [Savant] Jason Padgett’s book, for instance, is on its way to being a major Hollywood movie. Whether Leigh can tolerate that kind of attention when it comes is not clear.”
Tonight Erceg will sleep in her room at Heidi’s, which I assume promises a less panicky morning. An easier stumble from jacket pins to physics.
Past a guard booth I drive her up the hill into Emerald Bay—half-mile of private beach below, a resort postcard in winter—full of poorly-formed questions about the shards that make, or re-make, a self. Maybe because she’s a passenger, a tall one folded into a small car, Erceg seems especially makeshift for a moment, cobbled together. Like her portrait of Dylan’s face. I wonder if her unfiltered, reborn brain is ever quiet.
Not quiet, she says, “but peaceful sometimes.” She says it wistfully.
“You seem optimistic, though.”
“I know,” she groans, as if apologizing. “I know I am.”
As she leaves the car, I tell Erceg I’ll call soon with a few more questions. A wave booms from the shore, sending spray into the sky.
“Just don’t wait too long,” she says. “Because I don’t want to forget this.”