Both Sides Now
Leigh Erceg, 47, changed from rancher to super-creative due to brain injury
Posted Dec 17, 2014
They tell Leigh she was out feeding the chickens on her ranch when she slipped down a steep embankment on her land and broke her neck in October 2009.
The Steamboat Springs, Colorado woman doesn't remember that day. She was evacuated by helicopter after a friend heard her fall and made his way to her limp body. She was in and out of consciousness and had suffered a closed-head Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
When she woke in the hospital, she at first could recall the rugged, outgoing cowgirl she'd been. But she suffered subsequent seizures and lost her memories. Leigh was temporarily paralyzed and would have to learn to walk again. She had to have facial reconstruction surgery.
What was remarkable to all around Leigh was that she seemed fundamentally changed. She seemed new inside. Many sufferers of TBI undergo profound personality changes, such as Jason Padgett, the acquired savant and synesthete whose memoir I co-authored this year: Struck by Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Leigh read our book and related very strongly to Jason, she explained. She not only is compelled to do high-level math like him, she sees things synesthetically.
"I'm one of those people who's gotten lucky," she said over the phone. "I think of it as a growing thing that made me stronger.
"They say I never cared about math, or poetry or painting or dance, and now that's all that interests me," the curly-haired artist told me. Her sensorium seems alive with new impressions. Leigh's numbers and letters are all colored now, she says, though unlike most synesthetes, they are ever-changing and not "set" in grapheme to color pairs. She also sees shapes and hears fragments of melodies for her graphemes, she says.
Here are some examples:
A -- black and blue -- a triangle in a square
B -- blue with green -- a circle with a square drawn beneath it
C -- yellow and orange -- a half-moon with an equal sign inside
D -- blue and orange -- a square with two equal signs to the right and a thick horizontal line beneath
E -- purple, yellow and green -- a circle with a vertical rectangle overlapping the right hemisphere with a horizontal line beneath them
1 -- black horizontal line with a smaller, blue horizontal line beneath it with a white background
2 -- green and black -- big lines one on top of the other
3 -- two black vertical lines with one blue line crossing both like a "t"
4 -- blue-green, a marine color vertical line with two cross bars and a diagonal line to the right of it at 30 degrees
5 -- black, yellow and green. Two horizontal lines, a circle beneath them and a line beneath the circle off to the left.
Leigh is known to spontaneously compose poetry now -- it comes out quickly and often in perfect iambic pentameter. I asked her to compose one for this article and she instantly shared:
Fallen trees of yesterday leave me in the dark which follows
Spring field measures in passages
Songs flights of patterns sent
Which hold the day of lasting...
She hopes to move to New York City in the future and would dance, paint, compose and do math at every opportunity here. She shared the following video of her also spontaneous, delightful dance compositions:
Leigh is willing to submit to testing about her new faculties and wants to learn all she can about her new "self."
We are writing a book about Leigh's experience, tentatively titled BOTH SIDES NOW: THE LEIGH ERCEG STORY. It is represented by Andrew Lownie and is named for Leigh's favorite Joni Mitchell song. Ms. Mitchell, coincidentally, is also a synesthete.