Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2006, Volume 26, No. 4
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


The Puzzle Club: Brain Injury Survivors Talk and The Making of the Puzzle Club. (2005). [Videorecording.] Department of Drama/Dance, University of Montana. Distributed by Program Development Associates. Narrated by Will Tilton.

Reviewed by Denese M. Neu, HHS Planning & Consulting, Inc.; Midwest Brain Injury Clubhouse (Board Member)

The Puzzle Club is a filmed version of a 2004 original play performed at the University of Montana. The play was written and directed by Jillian Campana through collaboration with the members of The Puzzle Club, a group of brain injury survivors. It opens with 13 persons on stage, introducing themselves and the cause of their brain injury. The director then mixes their voices and blurs their images to symbolize the sensory and emotional chaos experienced by the survivors of brain injury. The stage is set and the viewer embarks upon a psychologically draining journey into these individuals' lives. For 80 minutes, one is drawn into their stories as they share their frustrations, their hopelessness and hope, and their forever altered lives. However, this film is not another story of injury and recovery; it is an education about brain injury–an often misunderstood and unrecognized disability that affects millions of Americans.

In addition to the emotional exploration, this film addresses the variety of the physically disabling effects that result from brain injury. Unlike most stories, this film is not a representation of the heroism of recovery or the triumph over obstacle. It is pure dialogue created by a group of brain injury survivors so well done that during the film (which is obviously scripted and performed) one wonders if s/he is viewing the survivors or actors.

The 13 individuals span the generations and after a while, they become strangely familiar: the high school friend, the neighbor, the former co-worker. Unlike Hollywood portrayals and made-for-television movies, these people are not heroic, they are not perfect, and some of them are not that likeable. This makes the drama more powerful because it does not aim to provoke tears through the typical formulaic approach. It presents real people coping with the fact that the happy ending is dependent upon their ability to face their new worlds positively as full of new challenges. At one poignant break between segments, the cast members stop talking and look into the camera, creating a theatrical window through which the viewer recognizes that it is only an incidental second that separates those who have had an accident and those who haven't.

The play is divided into 10 scenes: PRE-INJURY, THE ACCIDENT, REHABILITATION, LIVING AND DYING, STAGES AND FRUSTRATION, etc. The segments overlap in content enough to provide the viewer with story continuity but differ enough to guide the education. This film obviously was not created for a wide audience, however my guests who viewed it with me expressed that they were enthralled and drained by the emotional journey.

Beyond educating the viewer about brain injury and the impact it has on the individual, the film holds some important life lessons for all of us. The members of the Puzzle Club share their wisdom that came from no longer being able to take life and "normal" for granted. They further explain the title of their group, it is about "finding life's little puzzle pieces to make life better." The play left me wondering if perhaps they have indeed figured it out better than the rest of us. I don't say this lightly. Throughout the play, they talk about their faults, dreams, and personalities. They don't seek sympathy–just understanding of how they experience and exist within the world. The latter might be the most powerful lesson: how they have chosen to exist and move forward.

A brief documentary follows the film. The founder of the group, Jim Mickelson, explains why he started the group eight years after his accident. Although the doctors and therapists were wonderful during the rehabilitation process, nobody fully understood what he was experiencing. Thus, he started a social group with others who were also learning to live with brain injuries. A brief comment is made about how he was encouraged to organize it at the hospital. He opted against it since he and other brain injury survivors had already spent enough time inside of medical facilities.

Dr. Campana is also interviewed in the documentary and discusses how the play came to be. Originally, she tried to mandate what she was seeking and was rejected by the group. At one point, she describes their response as "we don't need you; we are already doing this." So she returned and asked them what they wanted to do. They expressed a desire to educate people about brain injury and thus the project began. According to Campana, the text of the play was written from exact words harvested from 400 pages of transcripts, and the members had control over their portrayal. Throughout the documentary, one perceives a high level of respect from the actors toward the survivors along with thoughtfulness and honesty. Perhaps this is the greatest lesson to be gained from the viewing: we share a common humanity regardless of all else.

Copyright (c) 2006 Denese M. Neu

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