The Dancer and the Demigods

Noelle Catharine Allen

Personal History


by Leonard Geist

Leonard Geist, our beloved friend and contributor to this magazine, passed away in his sleep this month. He was a young seventy-four, cycling from his upper West Side apartment to his busy Midtown neurological practice, traveling the world for speaking engagements, and writing a book on the visual arts, trauma, and the brain. The events described in the following pages were the inspiration for the project. For reasons that will soon become apparent, he had long ago made up his mind not to include this article in the book, asking me instead to publish it posthumously. It is with bitter regret that I do so.

On Sunday, February 2, 2014 Nina C[1] was woken by strange noises in her bedroom. She saw two outsized figures standing over her husband in apparent conversation. The language they spoke was like no other she had ever heard—screeches and rumbles interspersed with bits of birdsong. She considered she was dreaming, but the scene had no dreamlike quality to it. “It was real,” she told me later. “There’s that sense of acceptance when you’re dreaming, an unspoken compliance with the strange things around you. I had none of that.”

She had not stirred from her sleeping position. Ms. C was in fact frozen with fear, her thoughts racing through possible ways she might defend herself and her soundly sleeping husband—all of which seemed hopeless. The men were easily eight feet tall, and this terrified Nina C all the more. One of the two figures drew an aquiline revolver from his dark coat and carefully nestled it against her husband’s ear.

“Stop!” Nina shouted, sitting upright in bed. “Don’t kill him. Do anything else, take all our money, take me, hold me for ransom, but don’t kill my husband.”

The one with the gun spoke to her in flawless English.

“We are going to take your husband’s soul, not kill him,” he said.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“He will be here,” the man said, “but he will be different. He will never be the same without his soul.” The words terrified her all the more. Her heart raced and limbs felt icy.

“Then take mine. Or take my life instead,” she said. “It’s a fair trade. My life would be a void without him.”

“A fair trade for you,” the man said. “For us it sounds like we’d give up what we came for, just to get what would we could have pickup, free of charge.”

The second man broke in, speaking privately in their hideous language. The noises sounded now like rustlings, scratches, and animal grunts, with an indefinable element that was hair-raising. The second man said to Nina:

“When someone offers her soul in sacrifice for another, the bargain must be honored.” Swiftly, too swiftly for Nina to react—it was as if he operated in a time borrowed from a different universe—he moved to her side of the bed, drew his own revolver, and placed it against her ear.

In her helplessness Nina realized she had no guarantee that she had spared her husband. She felt an iciness shoot through her ear and cut a trail deep into the core of her brain, and she fell back on the bed into “a black place outside of time.”


Nina C. told me this story reluctantly. Her husband had cajoled, almost dragged her into my office. Over the previous six months, she had seen several psychiatric specialists, the last of these being my friend Peter Levine, the pioneer in somatic-ethology-based therapy. Peter had won her confidence and affection by discussing Puerto Rican cuisine with her, one of the few topics of conversation that brought Ms. C. a small, albeit transitory, spark of animation. Levine had convinced her to try his approach, which uses visual imagery to tap into the brain’s limbic system. He thus hoped to re-address the sensations of paralysis Nina C. experienced on February 2nd. Levine was entirely accepting of Nina’s story, contending that whether it were true or even possible was entirely beside the point; she had experienced it as truth and that was what mattered.

After six months of therapy with Levine, however, Nina had made no progress. A painfully shy person, she now withdrew even from the small circle of friends who had always buoyed her. She was in the depths of depression that had not responded to medication, and she admitted her greatest solace was imagining her own death.

Nina C. was a world-renowned dancer, a minor celebrity after her dance solos in several recent movies. Since waking on February 3rd, however, her ability to enjoy music, indeed her entire musical capacity, had been destroyed. Any music she heard, from a simple drum rhythm to Stravinsky to the Brazilian jazz she had loved above all else, sounded to her like shrieks and scratching, so unbearable she was forced to cover her ears and run from the room. In addition, Ms. C. experienced the trying sensation of being in two distinct worlds at once. She could perceive her immediate reality (which she called “this reality”) while at the same time she had an inescapable visual, auditory, and olfactory perception of a second place, the world of the oversized men (“demigods” she called them) who had broken into her bedroom. The two realities existed simultaneously “like scrims.” What she saw of the demigods’[2] world was a sort of luxurious loft apartment, in which the two men slept, lounged, cooked, ate, threw parties and quite often had sexual intercourse. For large parts of the day and night the demigods slept or were away from their living space, leaving her in relative peace to focus on her own world. When they were home, however, they were often noisy and distracting, causing Nina problems of concentration. At times she wore earplugs. She insisted on arranging her schedule around the eating and sleeping patterns of these presumably fictitious individuals, much to the frustration of her friends and husband.

Nina’s husband was the musician Antonio Q., who had won twelve Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year and Artist of the Year. Their marriage had been built on artistic intimacy and collaboration. She had choreographed and improvised her dance to his music; they had travelled the world together, performing. A week before the incident, they had given a private performance and dined as honored guests of the President and First Lady at the White House.

Now Nina was unable to connect in the least to her husband, who played, composed and listened to music from the moment he woke to the moment he fell asleep. She told him she no longer loved him and wanted a divorce. He refused, insisting her troubles were temporary. He tried to accommodate her “musicophobia,” as he called it, renting a practice space outside the apartment and even listening to music through headphones instead of the grand stereo speaker system the couple once enjoyed together. But it hardly made any difference—the life breath of their marriage, the sharing of music and dance—was gone.

Nina C. had grown up in the foster care system, where she was frequently transferred from one family to another—seven in total, several of them abusive. She had no memory of her biological parents; Antonio was her only legal family. Since Nina’s childhood the dancer and teacher Josephine Darlington, a giant at the New York City Ballet, had been Nina’s mentor, a sort of surrogate aunt. In 1984 Darlington (31 and retired from dancing) was teaching in the Artists Teach program in the public schools, assigned to an elementary school in Queens, P.S. 199.

“I was teaching four classes a day, with thirty kids in each class. It wasn’t much more than the first five positions, making them into a game of Simon Says so the kids would pay attention. I noticed Nina, though. She was precise and graceful, with a dead-serious expression on her face. After the first class, when all the other kids ran off to recess, Nina wouldn’t leave. She stood there, looking at me. I couldn’t get her to say a word, but when I showed chasses and pirouettes, she followed, snapping them up. That whole year I was with Artists Teach, I gave Nina a daily lesson during her recess.”

Darlington saw to it that Nina C. was enrolled at the School of American Ballet on scholarship from the age of six. The discipline of dance, the solace of the art, Nina told me, had allowed her to persevere through the horrors of her childhood. She attended Julliard and at age seventeen won a coveted spot in the corps of New York City ballet.

Nina met Antonio at a Manhattan jazz club. She was there with other two friends, also ballet dancers, after a performance of Balachine’s Apollo. Antonio was playing with his band, Compasso. The caxixi player was the brother of Nina’s friend Angie Camponegro. He and Antonio sat at their table between sets.

“Jazz and ballet are like two planets at opposite ends of the universe,” Antonio said. “But Jorge had dragged me to Apollo because of his sister. Our tickets were fifth row orchestra, so no falling asleep. And one of the girls on the stage—the one who had the part of Terpsichore—she almost made my heart stop. And then two nights later, there she was, sitting next to me between sets.”

Nina was shy to a degree that might be considered a clinical malady. She stuttered when talking with anyone but intimate friends and scarcely spoke in new social situations. Nevertheless, she and Antonio connected that night. “At first all I could get out of her was ‘yes’ and ‘no’,” he said. “Then Angie started teasing her about how shy she was, and I got it. I just kept talking about anything so she wouldn’t have to talk, and eventually she started smiling, saying a few things herself.”

Shortly after Nina and Antonio, she was promoted from soloist to principal dancer at NYC Ballet. In 2005, the year she and Antonio married, Nina shocked the dance world by abandoning her spot at the pinnacle of ballet to join Alvin Ailey Dance Company. She began collaborating with Antonio, choreographing pieces to his music. They had their first joint performance at the Brooklyn Art Museum in February 2007. Nina attributed Antonio with her switch from ballet to African diaspora dance. For the ten years of her marriage, she and Antonio collaborated intensely, indeed spent almost all of their waking and sleeping hours in each other’s company. Nina relied on Antonio’s easygoing, affable nature to help her through social situations. Despite her tremendous success and her minor celebrity (she graced had the cover of Vogue and The New York Times Magazine, had danced on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and had led thousands in open air dance classes in Central Park as part of Michelle Obama’s national fitness initiative), she remained painfully stiff and taciturn in conversational settings.

To Nina, trading her soul to save Antonio’s made perfect sense. In her view, she had truly blossomed only when she met him; his music, his encouragement, his very being was at the center of her art and her life. It was the ultimate lover’s sacrifice. But whatever mysterious phenomenon destroyed Nina’s musical capacity that February night had also destroyed her love for her husband.

Nina now viewed Antonio with acrid resentment. She told him several times a day she wished she had never made her great sacrifice for him—she wished it were he who had lost music. It was not simply that she could no longer enjoy, nor even hear music; what she had lost thrashed at her continually, not so much a loss as a malevolent presence, ripping at the fiber of her self. During her moments of greatest crisis, she shouted at the demigods in their other, superimposed reality, begging them to come back and take her husband’s soul. But they were either unable to hear her demands or chose not to, going about their activities as if oblivious to her.

This was Nina’s situation twelve months after the mysterious incident, six months after becoming Levine’s patient. As it became increasingly clear that his groundbreaking approach, which had been brilliantly successful with so many others, would in all likelihood not work for her, she demanded a divorce with increasing stridency, even as Antonio insisted she try other doctors, not yet give up hope for a cure. Nina was far from such optimism; her fantasies of death were crowding out all other thoughts. Levine considered antidepressants detrimental to psychological recovery, but at this point he recommended them to Nina, worried she was a suicide risk. Psychopharmacology only resulted in insomnia, darker moods, and heightened anxiety when she heard music. After one week Nina stopped medication.

At this point, Levine suggested to Nina C. that her problems might be neurological in origin, and referred her to me. In my initial appointment with this stony-faced, stuttering woman, I was struck by how, even in the depths of her depression, she still had an undeniable, cryptic charisma, and the idiosyncratic beauty typical of Almodovar’s actresses. I felt great empathy for her bravely optimistic husband, and I became intrigued by her case.



The sensation of being in two superimposed locations is a hallmark of temporal lobe epilepsy. The nineteenth century neurologist John Hughling Jackson, an early observer of this phenomenon, coined the term “diplopia” to describe this doubling of consciousness. Epilepsy-induced diplopia is by nature episodic, whereas Nina C’s was chronic.

Another reason to suspect epilepsy were the many cases of musical associations with temporal lobe epilepsy. In some instances, certain songs, melodies, or types of music are the trigger for seizures, and in time bring on a sense of fear and loathing as soon as the sufferer hears the first bars of the specific music that induces the convulsions. Could Nina C’s new revulsion toward music be another such extreme case of “musico-lepsy”[3]?

The onset of this condition could have any number of causes, dating back to the mysterious incident of February 2nd: stroke, aneurism, or even rapid-fire central nervous system infection—possibly meningitis—with accompanying fever and hallucinations.

Testing was required, but Nina C was highly adverse to testing. She was distraught by my preliminary diagnosis, seeing it as belittling.

“You d-d-d-don’t b-b-believe what really happened to me! Like all the other d-d-d-doctors, you think I’m m-making it up!” she said, on the verge of tears.

“On the contrary—”

“Be reasonable, Nina,” Antonio broke in, his tone betraying a crack in his heretofore abundant patience. “Assuming your story is true, would you expect the doctor to believe it? Would you have believed it yourself before it happened to you, if it happened to you?” Nina shot him an irked glance.

“All right, Doctor. I’ll do the testing, not because I have a disease, but because it will prove there is no disease, no tumor, no lesions, none of that.” She insisted I be present in the laboratory while the tests were administered. I agreed reluctantly, finding no other way to persuade her. This strange stipulation of hers turned out to be uncannily prescient.

The EEG was entirely normal, even after stimulation from a full spectrum of music at varying volumes. Nina wept and moaned, clutched her head and clenched her teeth while subjected to the music, suffering so greatly at times that her movements mimicked involuntary convulsions, but she was not undergoing seizures. She was coherent, conscious, in full control of her faculties, which the EEG reflected.

As I said, I had my doubts as the validity of the epileptic diagnosis, so the EEG sessions were hardly cause for wonderment. Still, a tumor or past infection could be interfering with her temporal lobe function. Only an MRI would tell.

What followed next was so unprecedented that even as I write this essay, I can scarcely imagine its publication. I have the MRI scans (Illustration A) here beside me on my desk as I type. The medical imaging center was all too glad for me to take the originals. No doubt they also voided all electronic records of Nina C from their system. I myself decided to leave her medical chart free of the unnerving results. This essay may be the sole documentation, outside the MRIs themselves, of what happened to Nina C. Whether this record remains entirely private or is shared with future generations who may perhaps gain greater knowledge of these matters, will play out in due time.

The MRIs show a small, intricately detailed, foreign object lodged in Nina C’s auditory cortex, the nexus of the brain’s musical function. The object itself is remarkable: a partial star in a crescent shape only four millimeters long, a tiny pentagram missing two of its points. (See illustration B.) There was a trail of lesions, evidently the scarring from the object’s trajectory through the inner ear (where its path eerily circumvented the handle, stirrup, anvil, and cochlea), across the auditory nerve and into the temporal lobe. Because of the object’s final location, surgery was not advisable. The risk would be too great to Nina’s speech function.

I gave Nina copies of the MRI. She was triumphant on seeing them, but by the end of the appointment she seemed to have sunk back into melancholia. I recommended an appointment with a neurotherapist and follow-up visit with me in two months. She didn’t return, however, and I sadly assumed I would never see her again.

A year later I was surprised to run into her in my neighborhood, working as a cashier at Fairway Market. Although she greeted me with little fanfare, she agreed to meet me for coffee the next day. I was saddened to see one of the country’s most talented artists reduced to earning her living as a grocery clerk. Over coffee and biscotti the following afternoon, she explained she didn’t mind the job at all. The busy pace at the store was at least a distraction, albeit not always an effective one, from the terrible anguish she woke with each morning and went to bed with each night.

She and Antonio had separated not long after her last appointment with me and the divorce had been recently finalized. She had spent the last year looking for emotional solace, trying to knit up “the terrible, painful hole the size of a canyon inside me.” She’d turned to the Bible and made a daily practice of prayer. It hadn’t helped, so she’d tried Zen Buddhism. Now after six months of dedicated meditation, she admitted she was on the verge of abandoning the practice. When I commented that it often took years to adjust to a divorce, a look of impatience flashed across her face. It wasn’t Antonio she missed. It was music.

I observed she spoke easily, fluently, without the stutter or signs of shyness. When I pointed this out, she agreed.

“I have nothing to lose, now that I’ve already lost my soul. I don’t care about other people anymore or what they think of me, and because of that the shyness disappeared.” Indeed, it hadn’t escaped me how she failed to smile throughout our conversation, not even in greeting me, and not at the light jokes and attempted witticisms I worked into our conversation, something I’d been doing with the subconscious motive, I now realized, of seeing her strikingly beautiful features light up. I was failing utterly. For the most part, her face and voice were devoid of emotion, even as she answered my questions fluidly. She showed no interest in me, never bothering with courtesies or asking after me. As she said, people no longer interested her. It was as if she had met me simply because I had asked her, and meeting me for coffee was the same as anything else she might have done on her day off—it made no difference in a life devoid of meaning.

The one thing she showed any desire about was that we not sit inside the coffee shop. The music would have tortured her. Instead, she waited outside while I ordered the espressos, and we then walked into Central Park and found a bench where we could sit. This avoidance of music was the single organizing principle of her life. She had looked for a job that did not entail background music. When she wasn’t at work, she wore earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones almost constantly, for fear she would hear strains of music from an open door or passing car on the street, or coming from a neighbor’s apartment. She avoided shops, restaurants, television, and movies for this same reason.

I offered to buy her another espresso the following week, and soon this became our Friday ritual. As the weeks passed, I wondered what she thought of our routine, and of my peppering her with questions every seven days. Was she developing any kind of bond with me, as I was with her, despite the stubborn sadness that had imprisoned her? When asked what she thought of our connection, she shrugged.

“I’m a specimen you’re examining. I’m another one of the bizarre patients you’re so famous for writing about,” she said. “Only I think I have all the others beat for bizarreness.”

“The role of the doctor isn’t as cold-hearted as that,” I countered. “We aren’t just clinical observers with a parasite’s interest in our patients. We are healers.” She only gave me a blank look that was more eloquent than any words. What could I possibly do to heal her? How could I rescue her lost soul?

I went home in a state of intense self-examination. Beside her on the park bench, I had not stopped to think before I had puffed my chest up as a healer, and I had hardly stopped for a moment, in the three months since I’d run into Nina C. at Fairway, to examine my role in her life story. Since seeing her MRIs, I believed her account of what had happened, was one of the few people who shared this secret, unsettling truth. What’s more, I had inadvertently been her vindicator, ushered the truth to light with the use of medical technology. But what use, ultimately, had I been to her? Even with the MRIs, the scenario in her bedroom was so implausible that it could not gain any sort of validity or traction.[4] Moreover, the material proof brought with it no sunny prognosis. To the contrary, it had reinforced her sense of doom, robbed her of any outside hope that therapy, surgery, or drugs might fix her problem. Even Antonio had succumbed to Nina’s desperate desire to be left alone in her pain.

And yet I needed to rise to my own challenge. I was a doctor. If I could not cure, I could alleviate suffering. I remembered other patients in seemingly intractable situations who had found ways to adjust.

Nina’s chief complaint at that point was her diplopia. She was still in terrible, undeniable pain over the loss of her art, but the constant sensation of being in two places at once, the intrusion of the other, mysterious world—paradoxically impenetrable and always surrounding her, imposing itself with uncontrollable sensory input—continued to overwhelm her at certain times of the day. I wondered if she could turn this into something positive. Was she able to explore the demigods’ universe? If she set out to walk around in the parallel world, what happened?

“Nothing,” she said. “I’m stuck in one spot, in the middle of their loft. If I try to go somewhere, I end up just moving around in this world, and the apartment moves with me, like a giant tutu extending around me in all directions.” The cumbersome image was telling of her frustration.

I had already asked her to describe what she saw in exhaustive detail, but this brought no sense of release. Could she learn anything more through careful observation? Was it possible for her to get a handle on the language by listening attentively? She could become a cross-dimensional anthropologist. Even if she kept her work secret now, she could leave a record for future generations. But she had no gift for languages, and the demigods’ idiom, with its grating screeches and rumblings, was a black box.

The next week I came with a sketch pad, pencils and crayons, and asked Nina to draw the world of the demigods for me. Her first renditions were rudimentary, almost childlike, but since she wasn’t adverse to the exercise, I encouraged her to enroll in drawing classes. She did so in the same way, I suspected, that she met me for coffee. It was as good as any other choice in her life. Soon she drew with competence, and the otherworldly elegance of the demigods’ living quarters came to life in gratifying detail.

In due time (months were passing, the seasons turning), I asked her what she felt when drawing. When she said “nothing,” I was crestfallen. I’d been beginning to hope drawing brought her a certain form of joy—the complete, creative concentration many artists experience.[5] When I asked her to elaborate on what she meant by “nothing” however, she grew pensive and at last told me that to feel nothing was, in fact, a relief after two years of continuous despair.

With this recognition, she began to look forward to drawing and to take a small amount of pleasure from it, which she admitted the next time we met. As a distraction from her anxiety, it was more effective than her job at Fairway. Soon she noticed a strange and wonderful thing: When she was drawing, she entered a cocoon of complete silence. There was no music, nor were there sounds from the street, nor the clatter of the demigods’ housekeeper doing the dishes. She might have heard her own breathing or heartbeat, but she was too absorbed to do so. In addition, she was able to bring such concentration to her task that her diplopia was temporarily suspended—while she drew, she saw only the subject of her drawing, and the world she was not drawing at the time fell away.[6] She didn’t admit to feeling joy, but said she felt a sense of reward and contentment.

“Might we even be,” I speculated, “reconstructing your soul?”

A look of fear flashed across Nina’s face when I uttered these words.

“Don’t say that. Don’t say that word out loud,” she begged. “They could be listening.”

Her trepidation about the demigods was understandable. Certainly they had never paid the slightest attention to her. But were they aware of her presence, of the strange fissure connecting her to their world? Nina and I had often wondered if her diplopia were part of her punishment or simply an accident—the result of an oversight when the demigods had crossed from our world back to their own. Had they simply been sloppy when they ‘closed up the portal,’ so to speak? It was, of course, impossible to say.

Since Nina worried the demigods would return and take her drawing from her as well, we began to refer to her new art as “cleaning up her computer files,” or “paying bills.” We never spoke aloud again about her soul.

By then Nina C. dedicated all her non-working hours to drawing. (Besides our weekly espresso dates and an occasional visit with Josephine Darlington, she had no social life to speak of.) She applied herself to her new pastime with the same ardor and discipline she had once brought to dance and in a remarkably short period—roughly three years—achieved extraordinary mastery. She displayed the sort of skill it might take other professional artists ten to fifteen years to achieve.[7] This was not the preternatural artistic intelligence of savants or prodigies,[8] not the sort of talent that seems to spring to life wholly formed, like the fully-grown Athena emerging from Zeus’s head. Nevertheless, Nina’s development as an artist was so rapid I often wondered if the damage to her temporal lobe and her extreme aversion to stimulating certain cognitive functions allowed her brain to reallocate resources toward the spatial rendering and fine motor skills required of a visual artist.

For its style and precision, her drawing was often compared to the work of the French mid-nineteenth century masters, such as Ingres or Domique Papety. Her portraits (of people in this world) were prized for the subtlety of expression in her subjects’ faces (see illustrations C and D), and her interior scenes of the demigods’ living quarters (illustrations E, F, and G), had a special appeal in a niche known as speculative visual arts. For fear of attracting the demigods’ attention, she never showed her art in a gallery, selling pieces only privately to a small circle of collectors, until the demand for her work became more than she could handle, and she hired an agent. Still, she never acted as if she had much riding on her commercial success.

Meanwhile she had become a manager at Fairview, then taken a job as office manager at a Manhattan private school. She always maintained that she drew primarily because it brought her relief from her symptoms, and never gave up her work at the school, although eventually she reduced her schedule to ten hours a week. The despair that had plagued her the first two years after the incident slowly lifted, she connected again with a few old friends and made several new ones, and in time remarried. It always seemed to me, however, that her emotional range was muted. Although she remained an introvert, her stutter never returned. Her easy, fluid manner of speech might have been due to a newfound confidence in the world, and might also have indicated she still did not care too much what others thought of her. Whenever I pressed her on this, she said both were probably true.

I asked her, from time to time, if she was as happy again as she had been before that February 2nd, if she was as happy as when she had been married to Antonio and at the height of her prowess as a dancer.

“Is a shattered vase as beautiful if you have saved the broken pieces and glued them all back together again?” she would ask.

“It can be,” I would say. “Sometimes it can be more beautiful.”

Her brow would wrinkle, and she would give me a little smile.

“I’m happy,” she would say, “but in a different way.”


Geist showed me this essay in 2019, three months after writing it. He knew it would be impossible to publish it in his lifetime, but sent me an electronic copy and requested I publish it—if I were comfortable doing so—after his death. We had many discussions about the MRIs and their meaning. Geist always took them as proof of worlds and beings beyond our usual range of perception. “After all,” he said, “not so long ago viruses, atoms, neutrinos were all beyond our perception, even our imagination. Who am I to rationalize away the implications of the MRIs? Who am I to say Nina’s demigods do not exist?” But we both recognized the wisdom of withholding this piece from publication in his lifetime.

            As must be obvious from this essay, Geist had fallen in love with Nina C. To further complicate matters, he also married her—an event to which Geist makes oblique reference at the end of the essay. This of course would call into question his objectivity and raise the question of whether his love induced him to accept Nina C’s version of her pathology.

            Nevertheless, there were the MRIs. I saw them with my own eyes in 2019. Geist showed me the file where he kept them in his office, and requested I publish replicas as an integral part of the essay—the Illustration A to which he refers. By the time I reached his office, however—some forty-eight hours after his death—the room had been ransacked and the MRIs taken, along with a printed copy of the essay. The latter was incidental, as Geist and I both had electronic copies. Without the MRIs, however, this piece loses its unsettling quality and becomes simply a fantasy story—one could argue, even, that the author had ventured into the realm of genre fiction late in his life. The accusations may come that he wrote this essay only to increase sales of his wife’s work. His widow, a profoundly private person, has declined to comment on the story.

            Those who know me will take me at my word about the MRIs. But with them or without them, Geist’s tale stands on its own as a moving portrayal of the wondrous, confounding nature of love.

 –Charles Steerlight

[1] All names have been changed.

[2] I have adopted Nina’s term “demigod” for purpose of brevity.

[3] Documented cases of musicogenic epilepsy are rare, but documentation of complete musicogenic epilepsy is even rarer. The nineteenth century music critic Niconov, a patient of MacDonald Critchley’s, experienced his first epileptic seizure at the opera. Over time, he reacted with seizures to more and more types of music, until he was forced to end his career in musical criticism. More fascinating, however, is the case of the Belgian jazz musician Francy Boland and his identical twin brother, Gerard Boland. Both received classical musical training. In his early twenties, Francy began to experience a sense of extreme discomfort around the sound of violins. This no doubt pushed him towards jazz. His brother Gerard, who began a promising career as a musicologist at the Sorbonne, abandoned this path and turned to industrial design, becoming a giant in the field. Francy went on to play and collaborate with many jazz greats, such as Chet Baker and Dizzy Gillespie. By the time he and Kenny Clark founded their jazz band (the Kenny Clark-Francy Baker Big Band) in 1961, his dislike of the violin had developed into temporal lobe seizures induced by any classical string instrument. As he told jazz historian Ira Gitler, soon his aversion had progressed beyond classical instruments to include the guitar, certain drums, and shortly thereafter the trombone. He insisted on removing particular instruments from the band until in 1972 he retired and focused on composing for a shrinking number of instruments. His last series of compositions, in 1999, was solely for the clarinet. In both Niconov’s and Francy Baker’s cases, it is noteworthy that, although both culminated in complete musico-phobia, the epileptic triggers were progressive in nature, starting with a reaction to particular instruments or styles of music and only over time developing into an all-encompassing aversion to music.

[4] The director and staff of the medical imaging center had become convinced Nina’s MRIs were the prank of a software hacker. They had thoroughly combed their system for the miscreant code without finding it. Nevertheless, the director told me that if a repeat incident were to occur, he was prepared to replace all equipment that had even the smallest function in creating the scans.

[5] The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has done extensive research on this state, which he calls “flow.”  The hallmarks are deep focus and complete immersion in an activity, which in turn creates positive emotions. Any work, art, or athletic play that requires creativity and acquired skills can bring about this state of joyful absorption. Since flow can create a heightened, narrowed focus, in which outside distractions fall away and the subject feels in control, I was intrigued with finding a way for Nina to achieve this state. It was precisely what she lost when she lost music and dance. Flow was, in essence, the opposite of the anxiety and apathy of Nina’s shattered existence.

[6] By then Nina had expanded her subject matter to our own world as well as the demigods’.

[7] The Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson has observed and documented this phenomenon, which Malcolm Gladwell popularized as the “10,000-hour rule” in his book Outliers. As Ericsson, Roy W. Roring, and Kiruthiga Nandagopal write in their paper titled “Giftedness and evidence for reproducibly superior performance: an account based on the expert performance framework.”

[8] See the work of the psychologist Howard Gardner, particularly Frames of Mind.

Noelle Catharine Allen has worked as a journalist in Buenos Aires and Mexico City. She lives in Seattle and is writing a memoir about newspapers, a mysterious illness, and her love of Borges.

You’ll find biographies for all contributors to Phoebe 43.2 here. 

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