A ‘Strange, Strange Brain’: A Story of Aphasia, the Condition Afflicting Bruce Willis

Tim McDermit was a young, dashing, talented pilot who in 1970 lost the life he dreamed of when he fell off a roof in college. Saved only from certain death by a tree that broke his fall, he smashed his head on solid ground.

After 12 days in a coma, and a near-death experience, McDermit emerged. But he couldn’t speak, or think clearly. His condition: aphasia, a brain condition which has now forced actor Bruce Willis into retirement.  “To Bruce’s amazing supporters, as a family we wanted to share that our beloved Bruce has been experiencing some health issues and has recently been diagnosed with aphasia, which is impacting his cognitive abilities,” said a statement from his family.

If you’re curious about Willis’ condition, you’ll want to see Strawberry Forever, a new 24-minute documentary about McDermit by his son Michael and Jacob Koestler and available for free on Youtube. (Full disclosure: Michael and his brother Matt McDermit are friends.)

But there is another reason to watch this film, which achieves far more than explaining a disease that afflicts over two million Americans, including Gabby Giffords, Sharon Stone, and Randy Travis. 

McDermit is a wondrous interview subject, speaking to us as a witness to the limitations of the brain and the power of the heart and spirit, revealed by the tender questioning of his storyteller son. The movie, which is based around interviews with the subject, is like a rich Oliver Sachs essay; tender, curious and revealing about the mystery of our biology and strange consciousness. “My brain is an abstract painting 24-7,” says Tim McDermit. “Leaves are fantastic. Trees and birds and clouds.”

Before the accident, McDermit says, his life was “happy, carefree.” He was living the American dream. “I had a motorcycle, a girlfriend, and respect,” he said. “Life is roll with the punches. Hard. Really hard waking up and can’t speak. It’s a different world.” One favorite mantra is from The Little Engine That Could: I think I can…

Michael McDermit told me that it felt like his dad “had been waiting his whole life to tell me these things, it all came out so naturally.”

By speaking about the ailment of his own brain, McDermit is a pilgrim to an undiscovered country. “My aphasia comes from traumatic brain injury,” he says lucidly. “Everything locked away.. A wind is blowing. And like a snow, cannot see. Like static.”

We live our lives running on “a strange, strange brain,” he says, speaking of his first word after his accident, strawberry. “It blows my mind.”

As he recovered, McDermit was lonely. “I emphasize with birds,” he says. “Can’t speak. It’s hard to speak.” He was subject to harassment as a “dummy.” He contemplated suicide.

What changed his life was meeting his wife, Marie, and fathering two boys. He settled down in Cresson, PA, a hamlet of less than 2,000 in central Pennsylvania. He’s lived a full life, difficult and joyful. Marie died in 2020. He paints, plays piano and fiddles, and hangs out with his black cat, Big Al.

His summation of all that is one of the most beautiful odes to finding meaning and joy I’ve ever seen on screen: “Suppose an angel can come here and tell me ‘erase the falling, erase the whole thing.’ And you will be flying a plane and scratch meeting Marie, and the two boys, and I will say I don’t think so. I will fall and I don’t care…. I’m happy.”

At the end of the film, Michael asks his dad what he’d like to be remembered for? “Never give up,” says Tim. “Never. Never give up. Never give up.”

John W. Miller

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