Art Matters: Brain injury, art and being human…


Published by brain injury charity Headway East London, Matter magazine combines essays, art, fiction, reviews and editorials by the centre’s members, staff and volunteers. The following extract ‘Brain injury, art and being human’ by Chris Miller has been published courtesy of the author.

self-portrait echoing Munch's famous painting of a man screaming

Me as The Scream. Painting by Chris Miller

Cure, perfection and being ‘normal’?

The artist Stephen Wiltshire has an extraordinary ability which he uses to draw what he remembers. One of his most famous drawings is of the Houses of Parliament and forms part of the exhibition on the brain at the Science Museum. Stephen also has a diagnosis of autism. Is his autism an ‘illness’ that he can be ‘cured’ from, or is it an extraordinary ability that is beyond what ‘normal’ people can do?

When I first went to Headway East London, as a member with a brain injury, I went to the art studio. Although I hadn’t painted since primary school, Michelle, the studio manager, encouraged me to paint a picture of the Houses of Parliament.

Unfortunately, I do not have Stephen’s extraordinary artistic skill or memory. I had to work from photos, and I was adapting to using my writing hand again after my stroke. Even so, in my mind, there is a connection between this painting and Stephen’s drawings.

Let me come clean about what I think. I look on my brain injury as a bad thing. Some members at Headway say they are better people since their injury but, for me, it is an impairment that makes my life more difficult. It is a more catastrophic version of what happens to all of us.

We all have to come to terms with the fact that after the age of about 30 our bodies can do less and less. In my 20s, like most people, I thought I was superhuman. Perhaps I didn’t think I would go on forever but, it would be for a very long time. That is now around 40 years ago.

To be blunt, all of us are on a road towards death. It is part of our human condition. Being ‘normal’ can lead you to ignore the inevitability of this. On the other hand, brain injury can force you to face up to your own end. I am not decrying medical advances but, at best, a ‘cure’ merely puts off the inevitable for 60 years or so.

painting of a figure lying in a watery green

Me as Ophelia. Painting by Chris Miller

Me as Boticelli’s Venus. Painting by Chris Miller

Mark Haddon, the author of ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’, in an introduction to a collection of writings on the mind, wrote that we “fall too easily into the trap of thinking that, on the one hand, there is the healthy, functioning consciousness of ‘normal’ people, and on the other hand there is the unhealthy, damaged consciousness of ‘abnormal’ people, people we class as ill or damaged or mentally diminished in some way. But that says more about society than about consciousness itself. In truth no way of experiencing the world is intrinsically more or less valid than any other. And all of them are fascinating and informative.”

Hitler and the Nazis thought that a ‘perfect’ world could be created by doing away with people who did not fit into their picture of perfection. For them, their ‘perfect’ world would only be populated by ‘normal’ people, but in reality, ‘normal’ people don’t exist!

All of us have something that is ‘wrong’ with us, even if it is just a discoloured toe nail, or a less than perfect face. This is all part of what it means to be human. Stephen’s autism perhaps has taken him beyond the ‘normal’. We need to listen to everyone, including those with a ‘disability’, if we are to find out what it means to be fully human. We must recognise that we can never create our own perfect world and to try to do so is dangerous to us, and to the whole of humanity.

What alternatives are there then to normality, cure and perfection? My answers might seem small in comparison to these big questions but perhaps they need to be small, human and incomplete: We each have to admit that we are who we are. We are not perfect and we have to accept and live with these imperfections. Cope with it. Get on with it. This might seem harsh, but we have no choice. This is the human condition.

Other people are key to helping us accept our imperfect lives. For me, Headway has been very important. Conversation, art and writing help me to stubbornly express my personality. Headway has helped me communicate my story to other brain injured people, my family and friends, medical people and the wider world. People with a brain injury, just like other people, need to have their say because we all have something important to contribute on the question of what it means to be human.

Conceived as a collaborative project; editorial decisions for Matter Magazine were shared as a group whilst still allowing individuals to explore what matters most to them through their submitted works. The result is a varied, colourful, thoughtful and emotive look at life after disability. Matter embraces what makes us different and what we share; the good, the bad and the ugly – and the true value of it all. Matter Magazine is available from for £5.