My Stroke of Insight: A Spiritual Memoir

I will cut to the chase on the last night of the year 2008.  I loved this book.  I read it nearly in one sitting, fascinated by the straightforward telling of an incredible story.  Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist working at the Brain Bank at Harvard University, woke up one morning with a headache and a set of very unusual symptoms–the noise of the shower seemed like thunder, and one arm went limp.  Numbers refused to stay in her head.  When she finally diagnosed herself as having a stroke, it took several hours before she could successfully get help. Had any little portion of her story changed, she would not have lived to tell it.

Barnes and Noble chose this book as the best memoir of the year.  Interestingly, it follows almost none of the story structure guidelines found in Your Life as Story.  It contains very little dialogue, for example, and it moves from a chapter on the author’s pre-stroke life to two chapters about how the brain functions.  Then we get to the story of the stroke itself, lasting until chapter 13, when the focus moves from narrative to reflection.  The last several chapters resemble nothing more than sermon applications, as Taylor explains first what kind of care is helpful and what is not for stroke victims, and then how the stroke has changed her life for good.

I had seen this YouTube video–Jill Bolte Taylor at the TED conference–and the four segments from Oprah Winfrey’s Soul Series, so I had the author’s literal voice and her passionate presentation style  running in the back of my head as I read her book.  The voice on the page resonated with the one I met first on the screen.  As she described what she discovered when only her right brain functioned, I could feel my own fluid, energetic self, the self that is connected to everything and everyone else.

The right brain is a mystic; the left brain tells stories.  Taylor’s epiphany comes after her recovery.  As she says in Chapter Fifteen, “My stroke of insight is that at the core of my right hemisphere consciousness is a character that is directly connect to my feeling of deep inner peace.  It is completely committed to the expression of peace, love, joy, and compassion in this world.”  This is the boon she received from her hero’s journey into her own mind and brain.

What Taylor learned, everyone who writes spiritual memoir must also learn.  We need both sides of the brain.  We need the right side to quiet our racing left-brain guided minds.  Then we need to call upon the language centers of the left side in order to tell the story of what we learn in the stillness.

The jacket cover rear flap contains a picture of Taylor with her arms around her mother, Gladys Gillman Taylor (G.G.) The picture jumps off the paper with the love energy that G.G., Taylor’s mother exhibited when she first arrived from Bloomington, IN, to the hospital in Boston, right after the stroke.  The first thing she did was lift the covers of her daughter’s bed and crawl in beside her. Her calm, her devotion, her teaching (everything from eating to walking to reading), and, most of all, her belief in a full recovery, built strength that made all the difference to her daughter.

I wished for only one thing as I read this story.  I wished for more before and after insights about the family relationships.  Taylor hints that her parents’ divorce and her brother’s schizophrenia had made her angry before the stroke, and that she chose not to dwell on those memories once she recovered them.  Her pure right-brain experience taught her that she had control over whether to allow negative thoughts to repeat themselves endlessly.  Instead of delving into the personal narrative, she shows us how she took control.  This is one of the most constructive sections of the book and the reason she writes the book.  She learned something all of us need to learn.  I hope to apply her suggestions to my own life.

I would also like to know a great deal more about her mother, father, and brother–not out of voyeurism, but because I sense that the human drama of her stroke of insight is not fully complete until more of that story is told.  The decision to make her family members minor characters compared to the stroke itself and to the real hero of the story–the miraculous human brain–had to be a conscious one.  Perhaps some day the time will be right to tell the family tale with the conflicts as well as the joys.  I would gladly read that book, also.

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
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3 Responses to My Stroke of Insight: A Spiritual Memoir

  1. This is a remarkable tale. I saw the video again online after hearing it the air. I imagine the book must be quite enlightening. I quite like your choice of learning lessons from her experience. There is a lot there.Most of the wise people I have interviewed described some struggles in life. While no one would want struggle for one's children, spouse, or self, it offers unparalleled opportunities for growh when it happens.

  2. Shirley says:

    Yes. Most of us will not have strokes, but all of us reach our limits in some way, just as Taylor did. Her experiences can be our guide for how to find the light again, and how to keep a gift from our time in darkness.

  3. shirleyhs says:

    Yes. Most of us will not have strokes, but all of us reach our limits in some way, just as Taylor did. Her experiences can be our guide for how to find the light again, and how to keep a gift from our time in darkness.

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