The documentary film, Who Am I To Stop It (Cheryl Green, Cynthia Lopez, dirs., 2016), profiles three artists with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The educational distribution company, New Day films, is a film cooperative that embraced Cheryl and her proactive agendas. Through a variety of film techniques, such as close-up and tracking shots, camera angles, scene montage, and music, it frames its subjects as multidimensional characters. These artists' practices range from the literary arts (personal narrative, social and political commentary, and poetry); two and three-dimensional artwork (painting and mixed-media collage); and the performing arts (music, singing, and spoken word poetry). The film also explores how these subjects cope with sundry impairments, as well as create new personal and political identities, through their creative passions. Strategically, the film focuses on the artists as acting subjects and avoids any language associated with diagnosis, as well as with the problematic questions of "what happened," with the conventional explanations of "overcoming." The subjects, Dani, Kris, and Brandon, are diverse in the both the causes and manifestations of their TBIs, as well as in age, race, class, gender, and sexualities. Poignantly, their stories are told in predominantly their own voices. The co-director, Cheryl Green, also an artist who lives with TBI effects, records her subjects' family and friends, yet centers on descriptions of the artists' lives, spoken in their own words. These survivors never interact with one another physically in the footage, yet, their stories cross paths in themes of loss, regret, and discovery; physical and emotional pain; dissatisfaction with and critique of various professionals; and the desire to transcend their mainstream social status as pitiful, permanently damaged victims.
The film opens with a scene of twenty-one -year-old Dani standing in her element, as she sings the hymns and goes through the rituals of a Christian church service with the devoted congregation. The viewer hears a voiceover of Dani discussing her experiences as a working-class, mixed-race, pot-smoking, lesbian, devoted Christian, and a survivor of TBI. In her first few words, Dani asks her God the question "Why me?" This question reappears throughout the film, in different scenes and with varying connotations. Dani then offers a list of what she assumes were her affronts to God. In such moving monologues and anecdotes throughout the film, Dani talks about how her multiple identities both overlap and conflict with one another. For example, she says her Grandmother, with whom she lives, disapproves of her attraction to women, as well as her use of marijuana. In her own language, Dani asserts her lifelong queer politics and the power of her art, despite the memory loss that makes her feel lost.
Later in the film, Dani, in tears, searches for the terms to justify her desire to support herself and her new identity. She wants a paying job. Her mother, Catherine, begins to remind Dani of her commitment to volunteer activism and of her loving family. She urges Dani to focus on what she has rather than what she lacks. Then Catherine suggests that her family "support" is a gift and that, before her accident, Dani liked boys and played the role of a mother-figure to herself, and we soon learn that Catherine was fifteen when Dani was born. Comparing the experiences of Dani to those of her family following her accident, Catherine offers: "You were a little bit luckier," and then she asks Dani to show compassion for all the pain and suffering that Dani's accident inflicted upon others. Here, for me, Catherine seems to suggest that Dani's experiences following her accident are less important than the impact it had on her family. Although the viewer knows that Catherine is a young mother and senses that she genuinely wants to understand, she might feel more compassion for Dani. Dani says many times that her life is stressful and unfair enough, and that she feels insulted when told that she should be more positive, especially when others say to her: "Don't cry." Dani needs to cry.
Dani feels bad about the car accident that caused her TBI, but she feels conflicted about whom or what to blame. She discusses her identity as a poet and explains how expressing herself and her struggles in poetry have saved her; the viewer learns later in the film that Dani has attempted suicide numerous times, all in violent and painful ways. Further, Dani discusses how she feels like a freak in her school. Her injury interrupted her education, so that she is older than other students and slower in her studies. Nonetheless, Dani reaches her goals and I, and, presumably most viewers, cheer her on as she prepares for and receives her diploma.
Dani is a poet who doesn't even know it, at least not yet. The camera follows Dani in her often-awkward exchanges with non-disabled peers, which are brightened by Dani's voice, telling characteristically silly jokes. For example, Dani approaches a group of young teens outside the mall whom she doesn't know and asks: "Guess what?…Chicken butt!," and the group jeers at her in response. In these clips, Dani dismisses her shame by expressing her admiration for hip-hop musician, Nicki Minaj, known for her unapologetic sexual displays and ribald lyrics – many of which feature her public celebration with and protest for the legalization of marijuana – as well as for her economic philanthropy. Minaj's exhibitionism seems antithetical to Dani, yet Dani explains how smoking pot increases her social confidence and eases her anxiety. Dani asserts, in her unique style (she unapologetically admits that she "cusses like a sailor"), that she has learned to walk and eat again, and that these accomplishments are only the beginnings of her metamorphosis. She then brags that her nickname is "Street Angel," an epithet she describes with an acrostic poem, which appears in the scene beside her. Dani battles her psychological impairments to perform spoken-word poetry at a rap battle held by Oasis, an LGBTQ youth organization. On this stage, she recites a moving and rhythmic poem about her creative processes and often-consuming paranoia. Chatting with other young people at Oasis, Dani confesses to her suicidal depression, frustrations with others' pressure on her to have a positive attitude, and her conflicting need for someone to agree that her life is not fair. Her new friend explains, in a conversational style, how her own "God" is far more Liberal than Libertarian. She goes on to emphasize how suicide hurts everyone surrounding the victim, but then just says, "Okay, it's not fair" to appease Dani. Peace seems to prevail. Dani needs her feelings recognized.
Toward the end of the film, Dani continues to smoke pot, write and perform music, and shares an apartment, and all its expenses, with a roommate. Scenes show Dani and her cousin going out to a bar. Dani also continues to find companionship through her rap and hip-hop exhibitions. Dani's "high," embodied, and empowering performances at a queer culture festival remind me of not only of Nicki Minaj's, on stage and in her many music videos, but also of the disabled performances artists I analyze in my first book (Millett-Gallant, 2010). Like these and countless other disabled artists, Dani lets her freak flag fly. Kris and Brandon do not use marijuana, but share Dani's embodied history, social isolation, frustration with others' false assumptions, and forms of self-therapy.
Dani's story introduces a theme of music throughout the film. Her scenes stage a discordant combination of her musical talents and means to express her needs for social justice, with her impairments. Hip-hop, beat-box, and rap are her language. Her number one idol is Minaj, but her next favorite is "Missy" (Elliot). The lyrical assertions of Lady Gaga provide background music when Dani tries on new sneakers, as viewers hear Gaga's "Fernando." Music pumps throughout the film in Kris's and Brandon's scenes.
The film introduces Kris as she exits a taxi and discusses her major depression disorder. Her background music is syncopated, like the score of a video game. She describes her experiences with depression in voiceover personal narration. "I was in the hospital for a week, and I was suicidal and out for two weeks," she begins. She then recounts how one of her most favorite cats, Jackson Pollock, died after she returned home, and she goes on to describe her devotion to and somewhat social dependence on cats. The viewer feels Kris's loss, as well as her love for cats.
Kris's connections to Jackson Pollock soon multiply beyond the name of her cat. Similar to Dani's idolization of Nicki Minaj, Kris places her painting in the lineage of Pollock's, an artist whose abstract expressionist, or "drip" paintings, were results of his corporeal and almost violent performances on canvases, many of which have been called masturbatory, or solely self-fulfilling. Pollock holds a mythical status in the art world, not only for his work, but also because of his alcohol-related, erratic behavior, which climaxed with a fatal drunk driving accident. Kris states that she is likewise an "eccentric artist," and that her work embodies her specific overstimulation: because of her TBI, Kris experiences visual and aural sensations to extreme and impairing degrees, as well as related mental health problems. She continuously experiences what physician and brain injury survivor, Dr. Claudia L. Osborne (1998), has termed "flooding," defined as being: "Overwhelmed by, or awash in, one's emotions" (234). Osborne expounds on this term to include TBI survivors' characteristic perseveration over the details of everyday life, as well as feelings of metaphorical drowning. Kris makes art, somewhat manically, to cope with her flooding, and the sign outside her studio affirms her practices: "1 Year, 10,000 pieces, 1 artist." Her mania makes her quite prolific.
Also like Pollock's, Kris's artmaking processes are impassioned, but they are even more cathartic. Through monologue, dialogue, and voiceover, Kris explores her roller-coaster ride as a woman with TBI who lives with the consequences, which, for Kris (and to some degree, for Dani as well), are overwhelming sensual stimulation, fear, anxiety, self-isolation, and feelings of loneliness. The film also makes clear that the effects of Kris' TBI are not the only source for her impairment, as she struggles with being denied of Social Security Disability benefits. Kris lives in an apartment building populated by other residents with mental health issues, and expresses fear of one, whom she says is a heroin addict and makes a lot of noise. Yet, she also conveys gratitude for having a roof over her head. Kris aspires to be a self-supporting artist, with a working intern, but the viewer may feel cautious to hope for this future. Kris struggles financially, lamenting that her family members have grown tired of helping her and that her parents disbelieve she has ever suffered from TBI, which is common among disabled people with invisible impairments. As an empathetic audience member, I feel heart-broken for her.
The camera later follows Kris's daily actions. At a doctor's appointment, Kris says she would like to start walking more and would like a prescription for a sound-cancelling device. She admits to worrying a lot and gets headaches and reports that she tries yoga and meditation, as well as makes efforts to socialize, for relief. During an anxiety-provoking visit to an art gallery, Kris expresses how good it is for her to get out of her apartment to see and to feel inspired by others' artwork. Viewing works she thinks are more integrated than her own, and feeling afraid that hers will never measure up, she exits the gallery to cry. Once Kris motivates herself to go back in, she articulates these feelings to the audience of the film by discussing them with a visiting artist from New York, Amy. Describing her artistic overstimulation, and asking the question: "Who am I to stop it?," Kris inspires the title of the film.
Kris's symptoms of mental illness fuel her work, painting and mixed-media assemblages. At first, I wonder if Kris is oversharing with others, a feeling that is heightened for me by a montage of film clips, in which Kris gives the same information to Amy, as well as to the J. Pepin Art Gallery director, Jennifer. While Amy listens, but can't help averting her eyes, Jennifer looks Kris straight in the eyes and hears her. Jennifer then reveals her and her fiancé's identities as bipolar. She tells Kris that they opened the gallery specifically to exhibit the work of artists with mental health issues, whose work is highly disregarded by mainstream galleries. Kris feels right at home, so to speak, in this public gallery and asks, quite self-consciously, if Jennifer would consider looking at her work. Kris then offers: "If not, that's okay." Jennifer responds: "I would love to!" Kris, whose demeanor is characteristically bruised, begins to express some confidence in her artwork, as well as a sense of belonging that she sorely misses. Scenes of her making and explaining to others her mixed-media, collage-like compositions raise the audience members' hope for Kris. She gazes at a paper advertisement for the galley, which reads "for like-minded people." She is optimistic about fundraising opportunities, revels in her upcoming show, and expresses some gratitude for her post-injury path through life. Kris's artwork is impressive, and decidedly not just because she has "overcome" her TBI.
Compared with Dani and Kris, Brandon presents his experiences with TBI in more vivid and consistent examples. His impairments are also more visible. Music foregrounds Brandon's story, as he sings and strums his guitar. The next introduction to Brandon features him sporting a t-shirt that reads "Chuck Norris always lives offensively," and performing his own shadowboxing moves, in the lovable and mocking traditions of parody.
Another scene features him playing chess with his roommate, Michael, and friend, Nicki. Viewers with and without knowledge of the variability of TBI effects may be surprised that Brandon can master such a game of strategy as chess. Again, in voiceover, as well as illuminating monologue and dialogue, the viewer learns about Brandon's numerous impairments; they include semi-paralysis of his face, facial differences, and consequential social stigma, which Brandon illustrates in spoken and lyrical storytelling. The film addresses, but does not reinforce, medical diagnosis for Brandon's appearance and actions. His mouth appears left of center on his face, and his somewhat strained articulation suggests his work with speech therapists. Brandon lives in a facility for people with TBI. He states that he doesn't want to spend his life there but: "Yeah! It's good for now."
Scenes set inside the facility hint at the variability of TBI outcomes for individuals. For example, Michael, his roommate, seems to have a precarious attention-span, trouble using his hands due to shaking, and is very emotionally sensitive. Some of Michael's behaviors baffle Brandon, and the staff attempt to mediate their conflicts by having them co-sign an institutional, not to mention, infantilizing, agreement. Brandon seems baffled by all the forms and rules that govern his group home. He complains about having to regulate his daily schedule, according to institutional restrictions, and that he was put on probation for missing curfew, in, albeit, low-volume protest. Viewers see the agreement on the wall and can imagine Brandon's indignation. At the same time, viewers may empathize with the staff, because they are responsible to and for their varied residents' personalities, needs, and affectations.
Brandon's exhibition of his TBI-related behavior plays out in his singer/songwriter performances. Although Brandon has memory loss and trouble recalling words, these effects are less pronounced for him, as compared with Kris. Brandon strums a guitar and sings about his experiences of being rejected by others, or labeled according to false assumptions about brain injury. Comparing his sheet music before and after his accident – a stack of seemingly prolific lyrics on paper, held together by a large clip, versus a single page with staccato lines, Brandon jokes that he is mainly confused: "hmm…I don't get it!" Like Dani's and Kris's, some of Brandon's comments are hard to hear, yet amusingly irreverent. Cheryl showcases the art and lives of people with TBI. This is counter to many narratives that focus on rehabilitation.
Brandon shares with Dani strong religious convictions. Prior to his accident, Brandon served as a worship pastor and is still dedicated to studying and writing Christian music. He says that before his accident, he made straight As in Bible college, but that, following is recovery, he enrolled in one class there and failed it. Nonetheless, Brandon seems confused by, yet proud of his progress. When asked about the cause of his injuries, Brandon calmly explains how his small car was hit by a driver of a large truck, a man who proved to have the drugs meth and marijuana in his system. Most compellingly, Brandon articulates that he has forgiven this man, which has brought him resolution. Viewers may feel surprised that Brandon isn't bitter; like many other viewers, I am inspired by Brandon.
Brandon states that, at first, he felt anxiety about performing for others, which stages Brandon's performances as progressive. In one such scene, set at the Imago Dei Community Refuge meeting, Brandon feels empowered by seeing his audience's positive and empathetic reactions, which draw Brandon further into a community he fondly nicknames "a group of broken people" – individuals specifically "broken" in a variety of ways. As a so-called "broken" person myself, Brandon empowers me. Brandon's song discusses events like getting off the bus at the wrong bus stop, and every example is followed by the line: "so what." This phrase is not a question, but rather a statement, as is the title of the film. The chorus of the song "I don't know" is Brandon's motto, as he resists trying to find reason for his injuries. The next chorus line is "I do know," and expresses Brandon's affirming his relationship with Jesus. He phrases his feelings of being a diagnosed patient as "drowning like a rat in the muddy Mississippi," as well as his confidence that his Jesus will save him. His flippancy is humorous and contagious. Brandon also writes blogs about his experiences with brain injury, which serves for him as writing therapy. With all these accomplishments in mind, Brandon coyly says that he has become a "big dill," pointing to a card featuring a cartoon pickle.
Many of the scenes suggest comradery between the artists and their interviewer and co-director, Cheryl Green. Green also lives with the effects of TBI and is an artist – a filmmaker who co-leads a dedicated, professional team. The audience may take for granted the confessional nature of some monologues and the subjects' willingness to, literally, let a stranger into their homes and private lives; however, that stranger behind the camera proves not a stranger at all. Green's team composed the film as a series of clips, rather than as three individual, and historically problematic case studies; for one example, numerous critics have charged psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud with objectifying his testifying subjects, specifically in his case studies, as the objects of his theoretical research. The film defiantly avoids such theoretical dogma, so that it is accessible to the broadest audience imaginable. Of the three artists, Kris most expressively talks to and leaves voicemail messages for "Cheryl," specifically sobbing and fearing eviction from her apartment. Kris and Cheryl share a devotion for cats, as evidenced by the recurring footage of cats surrounding Kris and throughout many scenes. Green highlights her subjects' colorful idiosyncrasies on purpose, to counter pervasive representations of brain injury as tragedy, as well as the ablest stereotype that individuals with brain injury continuously need the conventional practices of rehabilitation. She and her team have carefully shot and edited the footage according to the social model of disability, and, yet, the word "disability" comes up sparingly throughout the film. Whether these subjects self-identify as disabled seems irrelevant, as the film suggests that all labels, social and/or medical, are meaningless, unless claimed by the subjects themselves.
As an artist, Art Historian, Feminist, Disability Studies scholar, congenital amputee, the survivor of TBI, the author of a post-TBI memoir (illustrated with my examples of my artwork, 2017), and a self-proclaimed crazy cat lady, I am personally and intellectually impacted by the film. I identify with many of the artists' experiences and insecurities and feel gratified by their accomplishments, because they parallel my own. For example, I still hear condescending and self-effacing voices, and I routinely stress out trying to prove myself, especially in academic contexts. I become defensive easily, especially when reacting to what I perceive as others' low expectations of me and unsolicited advice (such as: "Don't worry!). Yet, eleven years after my 2007 accident, I am still discovering how rumination enables me to represent myself most clearly. In comparison to the artists I discuss here, I was already educated and had a strong family and support system. In striking contrast, I have been stared at and talked down to my entire life. However, I am only one member of Green's target audience. A viewer does not need any previous experience with TBI, disability, nor art, to appreciate and be affected by the film. It can motivate viewers to take civic and political action. Significantly, it is not a documentary that teaches a linear lesson, nor closes with a one-dimensional, happy ending. Audiences do not know definitively what will happen in the future for these three artists; however, more importantly, viewers can respect what each subject has gone through and are left with hope – hope for these artists' myriad goals, as well as for their feelings of self-acceptance and commune with others.
Green is currently presenting the film and her educational materials across the country; I urge my readers to invite her into their personal and professional homes. The film expands minds and perspectives, as well as educates, by provoking rich, educational discussion and debate.
- Green, Cheryl, co-dir. Who Am I To Stop It. (New Day Films, 2016).
- Millett-Gallant, Ann. The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art. (New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2010). https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230109971
- Millett-Gallant, Ann. Re-Membering: Putting Mind and Body Back Together Following Traumatic Brain Injury (Chapel Hill: Wisdom House Books, 2017)
- Osborn, Claudia L. Over My Head: A Doctor's Own Story of Head Injury from the Inside Looking Out (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2000).