EMG (electricity)

Ann Arbor, Michigan. Two of us were in a small windowless room. It was dark. I was nine-years-old. Outside, my mother waited in the hall. But in the room, leather straps bound me to a gurney so that I was unable to move. Needles had been pressed into the muscles of my upper and fore arms, my abdomen, my thighs, calves, feet and hands. The needles were connected to wires that were plugged into a control board that housed a row of potentiometers. A young man, the second person in the room, turned a dial, and electricity surged into my right deltoid. The current stung, burned, caused my muscle to quiver. I screamed. He returned the dial to neutral.

Mother was born on a ranch in deep Baptist Texas. She had been raised to follow the rules and, this morning, she was commanded by a young man half her age but who donned the authority of a white lab coat to leave her third grader and to sit in the hall. She did what she was instructed to do. The young man turned another dial. Another muscle stung, burned, quivered. I screamed and begged him to stop in the childlike way that nine-year-olds beg adults to stop, “I’ll do anything you want me to! Please, please, please stop! I’ll do anything you want!” It didn’t work. He turned another dial.

When I was five, we lived in Muncie, Indiana. I pressed a safety pin into an electrical outlet in our living room. The current coursed through my fingertips and I fell to the floor. 

Another surge of electricity traveled from the power outlet to the board and through a wire into my body. The muscle stung, burned, quivered. I screamed. My mother waited outside the room in the hall. She was doing what she was instructed to do.


Terrorism isn’t the destruction of a building. Terrorism changes your priorities far more than it changes your skyline. Terrorism plunders everything because of that singular necessity: survival. 

It begins with a loss of equilibrium. Your brain feels like it’s melting into fluid and is becoming unmoored from your skull. As the room spins, your hearing and eyesight no longer convey faithful representations of the space and sounds around you. Finally, if these signals accurately represent what’s going on within the wiring that is your brain, you sense nothing at all, and you won’t until you regain consciousness.

You wake in a pool of urine. It’s wet and warm underneath you, or cool if it’s been awhile. During those first conscious moments, you cannot cognitively put words to your name, nor the day, nor the month, nor your location. And so, when you’re asked questions, even the most basic questions, your response is that you don’t know. But you do know the people you love, and you’re comforted if they are there.

As you embrace your foggy cognizance, you are sleepy, very sleepy, and you should be. Your brain just ran a five minute marathon and has nothing left to spend. Your body, too, has thrashed and pushed and contracted and contorted until it burned every ounce of fuel it had in reserve. Left with nothing, barely even thought, your bewilderment turns to calm. You fall asleep. You will wake an hour or two later and will feel as if you have never before experienced such complete and perfect rest. You have never felt better.

I was nine years old when I experienced my first grand mal seizure. It occurred in a Chicago motel room in the winter of 1970, the day after my doctor changed my massive dose of prednisone and a week after an unforgiving head-first fall onto a concrete garage floor. Dr. Harrell said he didn’t know if it was one of those events or my newly diagnosed autoimmune disorder, dermatomyositis, that caused my epilepsy. It didn’t matter. That seizure and the ones which would follow, as much as my recent confinement to a wheelchair, would control my family’s life through my teens and into adulthood, not because the seizures were daily, but because their threat was.

Auras” sound lovely, spiritual, but to an epileptic like I had become they were the precursor. Auras signified that I was on the cusp of a seizure, and sent me fleeing to a space free of triggers. My flights became so common that my family – myself, my mother and father – developed a routine: I crawled into my head, closed my eyes, tried to tune out every sound and stimuli; my dad rushed across the living room, silenced the television; my mother hurried my wheelchair into my bedroom, pulled the top covers down; Daddy lifted me onto the sheet; Mother pulled the window shades tightly shut (even the smallest gape in the curtain was an opening for light and a cause for panic); Daddy left for the bathroom; Mother sat by me, whispered that she was near; Daddy returned with a cool damp washcloth; Mother placed it over my eyes, removed light’s final opportunity. Then we waited, in silence: me on the bed; mother on a nearby chair; my tall father on his feet, reclined against the far wall, watching. I shushed every utterance, quietly, seeking the least disturbance possible. I sought only isolation. I dived deep into its void for protection. 

The quiet lasted a few minutes, or fifteen, or thirty; every episode was different, if always the same. The result, most days, was a clearing head and then a cautious return to the living room. But on some days, more days than anyone would want, I dropped into a ferocious convulsion as my parents looked on at their only child as I jerked and twisted and growled unaware, until I stilled and, in time, woke.

“Did I pass out?” I asked. Rarely came the answer I hoped for. ‟You did, but you’re okay now. Daddy and I are here.” Mother’s words were without fail gentle and never without her touch. Daddy smiled at me, motioned to her; she removed the cloth from my forehead. He disappeared, returned with the cloth freshly dampened and cooled, “Here you go.” His powerful voice was tender like Mother’s. She placed the cloth on my forehead. He sat on the bed, caressed my side, “How you feelin’, Pal?”

“I don’t know.” Words were too confusing. Answers impossible.

“Why don’t you go back to sleep?” Mother asked. ‟I’ll be right here.” I drifted off.

We believe as adults that we’re autonomous and strong. We dismiss the herd instinct we understood so well as children. We pretend there’s something more sacred than conformity. But five minutes of uncontrolled shaking and writhing brings to mind nothing holy but everything sinister. Convulsions, the loss of control to chaotic unseen forces, are the bane of creatures who need conformity. People were feared for this, imprisoned for this, killed for this. And, when a child among children exhibits this demonic-like activity, our primitive nature is empowered; we are helpless before that kind of helplessness; especially scared are the young. Children observing this affliction become as afraid as the epileptic – afraid of the epileptic.

“Your seizures aren’t anybody else’s business.” Daddy was firm, drilled that phrase into my head. Within his warning was the implication that people would think I was crazy, “They won’t understand.” I never seized in public, yet Daddy assured me that even the hint that I could would doom me. He was a private man and frequently urged me to keep family business within the family. But his admonitions to keep my secret our secret were different, pleading, like my exposure put us all at risk. I reached young adulthood before I understood. 

It happened in 1936, a car wreck on the outskirts of Granger, Texas. The vehicle flipped, and a teenage boy was thrown head first from the old convertible. My father’s first seizure followed. Another would see him kicked out of the military during the war in which his best friend died a hero. I don’t know how many more seizures there were or under what circumstances. He never told me. But I do know that they so terrorized him that our doctor in Michigan had no idea that he had ever convulsed. That secret was held by a Texas doctor who prescribed the medication that arrived at our home in unmarked white boxes from twelve hundred miles away. Yet, despite his decades of caution, that thing which Daddy fled had found him. In his son. For him to watch.

Terrorism is unrelenting.