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The Loneliness of the Sudden Savant

A traumatic brain injury literally changed Leigh Erceg's mind, for worse and for better.

erceg-politics
“Politics” by Erceg

Morning means a brief hell for Leigh Erceg. With every sunrise she starts over, unsure at first where she is, who she is, what anything is, really. Not that the previous night is lost entirely, but ever since 2009, when she fell off a ravine in Colorado and became severely head-injured, she’s lived as a new person, with memory an elusive luxury and a brain rewired for art and music.

“I’ve often thought it would be so nice to have someone tell me what’s going on every morning when I wake up. Like, a relationship type of thing,” Erceg says, gravely. Her Lucky Strike voice betrays longing.

Waking up goes a little better at the home of Heidi Shurtleff, where her friend tapes notes up around the guest room: I am Heidi, your best friend. You have slept over at my house. You lived in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. You live in Laguna Beach now. You are an artist. You write poems. Equations and numbers fill your brain. You like to dance.

Erceg has been told the full backstory many times, but she can’t call it real memory, just something she’s been told over and over, like a fairy tale: She wasn’t always like this. She was an ATV-driving phys ed major who worked on a ranch in northwest Colorado, was a great skier and enjoyed NASCAR.

Out feeding chickens one day, Erceg, now 48, somehow – the details are unknown – tumbled down a ravine and sustained spine and head injuries so severe she required facial reconstruction surgery. But what the doctors in Colorado didn’t understand was what had happened to her brain: She was suddenly a person who knew how to create compelling artistic images in a modernist style, talked of seeing colors when she heard music and hearing sound in colors, was bombarded with thoughts of equations and read books on physics, and spouted rhyming poems like spontaneous rap. The doctors initially misdiagnosed her with bipolar disorder and possible schizophrenia, and placed her on a regimen of psychotropic medications, Shurtleff says.

Though Erceg couldn’t remember her own mother – whom she now calls “Jackie,” a nice woman who gives her a bank card – she knew what they were telling her wasn’t right. “Yeah, I was put on so many medications, you know, so that I would be quiet. A lot of doctors are quick to diagnose something because they don’t understand it,” she says.
Some corner was turned when she flushed her psychiatric medications. Drug-free, she found herself spray-painting doors and showing paintings at the local art walk.

Finding a competent diagnosis was Erceg’s work alone. She wrote to neuropsychiatrist Berit Brogaard, author of “The Superhuman Mind,” and flew with a friend to Miami to undergo MRIs and cognitive testing. She later met behavioral neurologist V.S. Ramachandran at UCSD (eventually turning her fondness for him into one of her canvases).

The experts concluded that along with amnesia, Erceg experiences synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sense leads to an automatic experience in another sense, explaining why, as one example, sounds become colors for her. Additionally, and most remarkably, Erceg is one of few women diagnosed out of about 30 known cases in the world with “acquired savant syndrome.” Extremely rare, it’s a condition in which vastly enhanced cognitive abilities appear after a brain injury in such areas as math and art, where these skills or interests were not evident at birth.

Her newfound talents and interests came not only with the price of any memory of life before she fell down that ravine, but more: an emotional bluntness akin to forms of autism, an inability to understand or read the concerns of others.

“Look,” Brogaard says 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 wrote her book as a synesthete herself, and what interests her is human potential. She tries to understand the preponderance of male savants: “The male brain is different, not something people like to hear.”

Brogaard’s prediction about Erceg: “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.”

•  •  •

Sublime behind rock star shades, Leigh Erceg can bring to mind troubadour John Sebastian at Woodstock: trippy, tousled, impaired. Lately, this ecstasy expresses itself through dancing around in her loft in motorcycle boots, although sculptor Jon Seeman and his crew, whose ceiling is her wood floor, have begun to venture a few words about this.  

One might assume her creative genius would be fueled by nostalgia, a search for her former self at the bottom of that ravine. But for Erceg, it’s the opposite.  Like 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 Shurtleff, upbeat, demurring, a retired senior partner at J. Walter Thompson who has been Erceg’s surrogate mother since they met on a trip to Steamboat Springs. Shurtleff is trying to explain Leigh’s new 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. 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.  

The sudden stops and starts of Erceg’s conversation can make you wonder if she’s talking abstruse math or dumbbell English. “You mean – you’re thinking through whether life just ends?” she is asked. “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.

When she sways her shoulders to a song on the sound system, calling out changes (“F sharp, G major, bring it down”), it later turns out every note is wrong.

To be clear, savant doesn’t mean “Rain Man.” When she was profiled last year for a segment of ABC’s “Nightline,” online critics pointed out that many of the equations shown on her plasterboard studio walls were nonsensical. But Erceg feels the spark of epiphany in the equations; this is a form she’d never been inclined toward in the past, and that is the point. Same with poetry.   

“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.

•  •  •

What is undeniable is the talent expressed through her drawings, which she creates freehand using Sharpies. At the beginning of the year she had her first gallery showing in Laguna Beach. The memory still animates her: “When we were at the gallery and I was able to speak and get out what was on my mind, and be around people that understood, there was a flash of lightening there, something that was good.”

Up the stepladder stairs in her loft at Seeman’s art studio on Laguna Canyon Road, 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 downstairs. 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.  

•  •  •

Emotions. They’re what she has trouble figuring out.

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.  Even Erceg knew things could have quickly gotten worse. “She gets annoyed when I tell her she’s chronologically 5 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.”

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 and scrambled speech as psychosis. Paralysis, facial reconstruction, rods in her neck. The fiancé who drifted. The old friends she now didn’t remember, who became frustrated at this new person in the place of the Leigh they had known. To her, they were all strangers, and she likewise felt frustrated with their efforts to make her remember the past. They too drifted.  

Erceg describes months of unnecessary dental work, plus a therapist whose treatment was massages at his home. She cracks: “I may have taken a fall; I didn’t take a stupid pill.”
Some forgotten athletic instinct led her to the pickleball courts, where she ruled the tennis-like competition like a superhero.

Enter Shurtleff, who would become the one person with whom she could connect. Always one drawn toward the 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.”  And that’s how the friendship began, eventually following the Shurtleffs to their home in Laguna Beach, a more hospitable place for art and for starting over.

She wanted to leave bitterness behind, an inspiration she traces to a hostile workers’ comp deposition back in Colorado.

“They were trying to prove that you didn’t have a brain injury,” Shurtleff 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.

•  •  •

Erceg tells me she yearns to find her tribe. “I really would like to be around more people who understand me. Being able to be around people who actually will consider my intelligence and not always disagree with it. Yes, I want to be an artist. Yes, I want to engage in physics. Yes, I want to be around people who aren’t afraid to approach me. Relationships. I’m very different. It’s like coming out of the worst war ever and being able to say, ‘I have something to offer.’ ”

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 …”

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 Shurtleff for more chauffeuring. I venture, “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 …”

Later, I drive her up the hill to Shurtleff’s house in Emerald Bay – a half-mile of near-private beach below, a resort postcard in winter – full of 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.”

************

Alan Rifkin is a former Details and L.A. Weekly contributing editor who has also written for Premiere, Los Angeles Magazine, Black Clock and The Quarterly. He is the author of the short story collection Signal Hill (amazon.com/Signal-Hill-Alan-Rifkin)  (City Lights). His new book is Burdens by Water: An Unintended Memoir (amazon.com/Burdens-Water-Unintended-Alan-Rifkin) {Brown Paper Press). A finalist for both the PEN Center-USA Award in Journalism and the Southern California Booksellers Award in Fiction, Rifkin has led writing workshops at Santa Monica College, Chapman University, California State University, Long Beach and UCLA Extension. He is active in the homeless ministry at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Long Beach, and is the father of three children. Find him at www.alanrifkin.com


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