Neurological Disorders: Illustrated?

Tonight I attended a lecture at Salem’s membership library, the Salem Athenaeum. Dr. David E. Thaler, Neurologist-in-Chief; Chairman and Professor, Department of Neurology, Tufts University School of Medicine (phew!), shared with us his incredible initiative to create a more welcoming space for patients at the Neurology Center at Tufts University by adding creative pieces of art reflecting neurological disorders, but in a mainly unscientific way.

Here are some of my favorite pieces included in the exhibit (Descriptions are a good ol’ copy/paste from

  • This Machine Kills Fascists“: Woody Guthrie used his music to champion the poor and downtrodden and bring attention to political causes and social injustices. Growing up during the Great Depression, Guthrie lived a wandering lifestyle, traveling and living all over the country, producing music that connected with the everyday man who was down on his luck. Guthrie helped to popularize folk music, bringing the genre commercial success. In the late 1940s, he began to show signs of Huntington’s Disease, a condition later understood to have been inherited from his mother.

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  • Alice in Wonderland“: John Tenniel brought Lewis Carroll’s books to life with his engaging, and often humorous, illustrations. A political cartoonist at Punch magazine, Tenniel’s sharp style was well-suited to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. His illustrations became famous around the world as the novel and its sequel proved to be great successes—as they still are today. Here, Alice finds herself in a room that is much too small, or she is simply much too big. Named for this moment in the story, “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome” is a condition where one’s sense of body image and perceived scale is altered. This is thought to be an unusual variant of a migranious aura; Lewis Carroll himself was known to suffer from migraines.

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  • The Creation of Adam“: “The Creation of Adam was painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling for Pope Julius II by the Renaissance master Michelangelo. Instantly recognizable today, God’s outstretched arm reaches toward Adam, about to fill him with life. An extensive restoration effort in the 1980s led to a renewed interest by scholars in deciphering both the meaning of the ceiling as a whole and the individual significance of this moment. In 1990, Frank Meshberger, MD, proposed that Michelangelo (known to have had an interest in anatomy and to have performed human dissections) deliberately painted God’s cloak to resemble a human brain in profile. Dr. Meshberger argued that Michelangelo was intending to convey through this imagery that God was about to give Adam humankind’s most valuable trait: intelligence.
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In honor of one of my beloveds I going to throw in a Lily Allen video song because it’s my 100th post and why the hell not: Dr. Thaler, presenter, asked us to consider whether Michelangelo did this because humankind was God’s best creation, or because God was humankind’s best creation. 

What are your thoughts about this? Email me –

Anyway, I was awed by the thought that went into the selections of art and the consideration of various neurological diseases – from FDR to Lou Gehrig (a Boston legend), from cult classic fantasy writers to practically unknown artist from ancient Egypt, an amazing number of situations were covered. The art historian graduate student who did much of the research & writing wasn’t present so we couldn’t understand her decision making, but as I thought about the decisions some questions struck me.

Dr. Thaler made note of famous artist Vincent van Gogh’s life in stages that were normal or “maybe” epilepsy or bipolar disorder. This mention of “normal” as we discussed a series of remarkable people and their “unnormalness” (pardon my created word) as a way of demonstrating neurological disorders perked my senses. My empathetic heart said, “Wait, hold up. Who decided which tendency is NORMAL?”.

After his self-mutilation (the removal of his ear by his own person), van Gogh’s neighbors called him “fou roux” (the redheaded madman…) and testified that he was unsafe around the public. Van Gogh listened to their concerns and self-admitted himself to asylum (a building in which many of his famous works were created).

While at the asylum van Gogh was treated with foxglove  – a natural remedy used to treat heart problems (but not epilepsy or bipolar disorder, one or both of which he was being treated for…).  Consider this: an overdose of foxglove can cause individuals to see an abundance of the color of yellow – a favored color of van Gogh as an artist and many modern interpreters believe this might have led to his use of the color in his paintings.

Dr. Thaler made note of the phases between van Gogh’s “normal” days and his “not” normal days – he asked us to consider whether we would be able to appreciate this amazing art of he’d never been admitted to the asylum. I take issue with this – Who decided what was “normal” and what wasn’t? How was this determined? Is someone experiencing epilepsy or bipolar episodes “not normal?” If someone isn’t “normal” and suffers in their life with self-mutilation or depression should we ignore their plight and only appreciate what they’ve done for our own pleasure? 

Um, no. 

During the Q&A I asked:

“You mentioned ‘normal’ when talking about van Gogh. You then reviewed a series of remarkable people. As you pulled pieces together for this exhibit, was the team purposeful about representation from various ‘normals’ – for example regarding skin color and sexual orientation.” 

The response was basically, “Oh, no. We didn’t do that.”

From what I understand, because he is a neurologist he only thinks about brains and spines – never skin color or orientation.

And all I could think is “I don’t see color” and how detrimental this statement can be. 

I know so many wonderful people who use this phrase and don’t understand how it erases the horrific histories of indigenous and African people in America. Their hearts are in the right place – they want to be kind and thoughtful, but they sometimes misjudge and unintentionally ignore important feelings of others around them.

A “Neurologist-in-Chief; Chairman and Professor” at a world renown school of neurology didn’t consider representation during a very time consuming and expensive art project undertaken at his school of residence. This is certainly no “knock” on his education – in any way whatsoever. But it’s a knock on our society for not making representation a more important part of every conversation we have.

We can’t be “color blind” and assume cis/white/male is “default”. People of Color need representation. Women need representation. Non-binary people need representation.

We need to do better.


Walk for HAWC

When in college, I participated in a program to provide peer to peer support for young women impacted by rape and domestic abuse. The thing I remember most was that on the last day of our training, one of the participants shared that she was a survivor. My heart dropped and I felt uncomfortable. I will always remember her face and her bravery.

Later, maybe ten years ago, I walked in my first Walk for HAWC (formerly Healing Abuse for Women & Children and now Healing Abuse & Working for Change – see note below).  Walkers spent a few moments at the town square at Old Town Hall, then walked together around our little downtown. There was a sense of community unlike any I’d felt prior, and only a few times since. So many representatives of our community had come together to stand up for individuals who were survivors of domestic violence.

I felt empowered.

More recently, I decided I was to go to grad school with the goal of starting a nonprofit that would merge my passion for helping animals and women impacted by domestic violence. I wanted to create a network of animal shelters who would offer shelter for the pets of women in domestic abuse situations. There are a number of practical reasons shelters can’t take pets, but there is also a huge amount of evidence that shows domestic abusers are very likely to use a pet as a manipulative tool to cause the person they abuse to stay. I wanted to help find temporary spaces for those pets so women could find shelter.

As sometimes happens, my plans changed; my career took another route. My passion, though hasn’t. I was fortunate in the last few months to help HAWC in unique ways. In the spring I was able to organize a Galentine’s Day event in support of the organization – ladies celebrating ladies! – and today I helped shoot a photobooth during the 2018 Walk for HAWC.

Though I haven’t walked in the Walk for HAWC in so many years (and didn’t even technically walk today), I felt the same sense of community, the same punch to my heart. It was pouring. It was gloomy. It was hard.

One person participating in the walk asked me to take her photo. She told me she was nervous. I told her the photo would be beautiful and to not fret. She chatted with me after the photo. She told me how moving the whole event was, how happy/sad/scared she was to be participating. Then she asked me to recycle a sign she held up in the photobooth and went to check out other booths at the event.

Later, while recycling the sigh she’d written for the photobooth I noticed that she’d written “I AM A SURVIVOR.”

My heart paused for a moment. I thought of her face, of her bravery, of her being at the event alone. I remembered the woman I’d met in college – another woman who survived domestic abuse and rape, another woman who was brave and spoke-up.

I have a million thoughts about the #metoo movement. I am so proud of the women speaking up. I am so sad so many women weren’t able to speak up in the past. I am scared for repercussions for women who speak up at the “wrong” time. I worry for those who can’t speak up yet.

On average, 24 people per minute are victims of sexual or physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner. We must keep speaking up on their behalf – especially knowing that sometimes they can’t on their own. We have to keep supporting organizations like HAWC. We have to keep talking about this.

Please. Please. Please consider making a donation to HAWC in support of their important work. Can’t make a donation? They’re also looking for volunteers.

A quick note: I wrote this from my personal heart – the heart of someone who identifies as a cis white female. I want to be sure to note that HAWC welcomes individuals of all identities (hence their name chance). If you or someone you love needs support you can contact them here

Musings: The Darkened Room

I LOVE ghost stories. I especially love Victorian ghost stories. I also love a good feminist manifesto. No surprise to anyone, then, that I was drawn to Alex Owen’s in “The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England”.  Its premise is that during a time of great oppression, women were able to find a sense of self and belonging in a masculine dominated society. Women of England were able to create jobs in support of themselves through Spiritualism, though women can be bound “into a paradigm of weakness, instability, inferiority, and social powerlessness” (p. 242).

First, a bit of history: In 1848 New York’s Fox sisters began communicating with the dead through various knocking sounds. The sisters – Kate and Margaret – were just 12 and 15 when they began “rapping” with spirits. After the American Civil War, people sought ways to cope with the deaths of their loved ones who never returned, and being able to communicate with them – though dead – gave families a great sense of relief. The sisters became successful in their mediumship, and the concept of women communicating with spirits spread around the country and across the ocean to England.

At the time, women lived their lives were as caretakers of the home. They managed the household and were expected to live extremely restricted lives revolving around their husbands and children. They were not expected to have much of a voice of their own, never mind the voice of a spirit. Once Spiritualism took hold, this all changed.

As Owen explains it, Spiritualism was a feminist movement allowing women an opportunity to channel (channel? get it! what? i’m funny!) their own energies to release themselves from the mold of a quiet, docile, housewife, to being famous. They traveled! People listened when they spoke! They made their own money!

Spiritualism spread. Women from all over the US and England became mediums; people from all over attended their seances. It was quite a time for ghost relations!

To learn more about Spiritualism in America, friends and I recently participated on a walking tour with Melissa at NowAge. Melissa brought us to a number of sights around Salem that were involved with Spiritualism: from a stop at the former home of Spiritualist disbeliever – Nathaniel Hawthorne, to a Spiritualist Church that still welcomes worshipers, and a Swedenborian Church, we learned a ton and visited some amazing places.

Going on this tour with Melissa was more than simply picking up some tidbits for Salem history nerdom, though. We met Melissa through a Tarot Tour she hosts (which is AMAZING) and love the energy she brings to our historic city. She’s a kick-ass history nerd and is part of the amazing New Age community here in Salem – modern witches who, among other things, read tarot, carry crystals, burn candles of various colors and shapes, and help others through Reiki. Melissa is part of a group of women who are all about embracing womanhood and using it to help make the world a better place. I can’t think of any better to wander around Salem with as we learn and consider the stories of women who were doing the same during the 1800s.

As I consider Owen’s take on Spiritualism – that women played a central role as mediums, healers, and believers in the late Victorian Era allowing them independence and to question gender roles of the time – I can’t help but think about the women in Salem who are working to bring back the spells of old – natural healing, teas and herbs, crystals and sage – and making them modern. Even though times have changed, women are still working to find “a sense of self and belonging in a masculine dominated society”. And I love it. 

I had a chance to sit down with Melissa at the Creative Salem office to chat about Spiritualism and why the history is still relevant today.  LINK COMING SOON!


El Punto: A Forgotten Neighborhood

“Nobody crosses the street, because of what they’ve been told. An idea can become a reality if you promote it enough.”

I recently had an amazing opportunity to take a tour of the Punto Urban Art Museum here in Salem. I am well aware of the stereotypes that have plagued this neighborhood in recent years: I’ve lived here for over 15 years, and can’t tell you how many times people have said not go to The Point: Don’t drive through. Don’t walk nearby. Don’t eat at the restaurants.

I kind of always followed their advice, never really understanding the fears from which it arose.

Finally, I got to know people from The Point. I started driving through on my way home, or parking in The Point to visit my favorite record store. And I realized – those people were wrong.  The people living in the point aren’t scary, bad, evil monsters. They are regular ol’ people trying to make a living and do what’s best for their families.

BUT. It’s harder for the families who live here to make livings. Most of Salem speaks English, but many of the families living in this neighborhood speak Spanish. Many come from Dominican Republic with no money, no jobs, no security. And. they have to fight their asses off just to put food on the table. According to the Boston Globe, absentee landlords “rent to poor people for whom they have no respect, collecting their checks while letting grass grow tall and buildings decay.”

This isn’t right. Right? You agree? You know this? Yes, we all know this. Then why does it take us so long to realize it and do something about it? 

Then came along Ruben Ubiera. Mr. Ubiera spent his teen years in El Punto (The Spanish word for “The Point” which I will use going forward – here and in person). He loves Salem. He is grateful for all this one of a kind city has offered him. And now, he’s giving back from working as an artist in Florida. Along with his sister, Rosario Ubiera-Minaya of the North Shore Development Coalition, Mr. Ubiera is doing what he does best to show the rest of Salem that El Punto is, in fact, a welcoming community. The streets aren’t scary. The restaurants offer delicious food. The people are kind and hard-working.

Mr. Ubiera, along with a number of other world re-known artists and 20 emerging local artists, are transforming the aesthetic of the neighborhood. They’ve known all along that the people don’t need to change – sure, the houses are run-down, but the people aren’t. In my mind, there is no better way to showcase the culture of a group of people than to share their art. And I love that Mr. Ubiera is doing so on the largest canvases he can find: BUILDINGS.

All working on this project emphasize the importance of keeping Dominican culture the forefront of all they do. The goal is not to gentrify the community, but to welcome others from Salem (and beyond) to appreciate all El Punto has to offer. The goal is to make Dominican culture prominent and comfortable for those who don’t live in El Punto. And this project is a great way accomplish this lofty goal.

Almost to the end of our tour, we paused to admire another mural. I noticed we were at a small park, and there was a little boy playing basketball. He was alone – dribbling and shooting hoops. But as I watched him play I realized, he wasn’t alone. His family didn’t need to worry about him playing on the court by himself. It became immediately clear to me that this is a close-knit neighborhood of people who care of each other. And I love that. I want to share that feeling I had with the whole of Salem.

I urge everyone to visit El Punto Urban Art Museum. Check out the murals celebrating the culture of some of Salem’s newest immigrants. Eat at the near-by restaurants. Say “Hello!” or “Hola!” or something kind to the people who live there. Experience the magic of spending time in a, once forgotten, neighborhood right here in our beautiful city.



Abraham Yvonne, “Artwork highlights Salem neighborhood’s true colors,” The Boston Globe,, July 22, 2017. 

Punto Urban Art Facebook Page, accessed July 30, 2017,
Urban Pop Soul, accessed July 30, 2017,
North Shore Community Development Coalition, accessed July 30, 2017,