In February of 2015 my wife suffered what was later diagnosed as a minor stroke. She experienced loss of feeling, weakness, a drooping eye, loss of fine motor skills, and she forgot many words. She was still going but had definitely experienced some sort of breakdown. After time, even though the physical effects of the stroke had supposedly subsided Annabel was still unable to walk or write well. Consultants came and went, each with slightly different diagnoses. The one that stuck, or at least that we found most interesting, was Functional Neurological Deficit.
Functional Neurological Deficit or Functional Neurological Disorder is an umbrella term for a series of symptoms which despite their appearance are hard to define psychologically or physically. They are often linked with stress or earlier trauma. The professor who diagnosed Annabel described it as a difficulty of communication between brain and body. He used the analogy of the spinning ball on the computer when a piece of software hangs, the brain was working fine but it wasn’t yet able to execute its commands. He also used a much less technical example. Most of us can walk along a line a few inches wide if it is drawn on the ground but if it is 100 feet in the air, things are very different. Our focus is suddenly so acute, we are so aware of walking, that we can’t do it. This idea fascinated me as I had been recently making a number of works related to tightrope walking. I was interested in the fear that the high wire brought out in me but also the mundanity of the act. Blondin, once he had crossed the Niagara falls once, spent the rest of his life doing it again and again in one form or another: making an omelette, carrying his manager, pushing his daughter in a wheelbarrow. He died from diabetes at the age of 72 at his home “Niagara House” in Ealing. The professor’s comments made me think that daring is all about context.
Annabel’s treatment consisted of a form of physiotherapy which would help her brain remake its connections and stop her thinking too hard about locomotion. She was instructed to walk backwards (she reminded me that Yul Bryner, Westworld’s robot gunslinger, used to run backwards), to carry awkward objects and to imagine strings held her up. This was all intended to engage her conscious mind and to allow her unconscious to get on with the job.
Often I would hold Annabel’s strings for her, she would walk down a corridor, me behind her, holding her head by an invisible thread. If I was feeling particularly annoying I would hum a song from Pinocchio. Humans, puppets and robots are closely connected. Often in films puppetry is one of the methods used to bring a robot to life. Within science fiction narratives the severing of connections, the cutting of strings, is one of the main ways in which the robot is defeated.
In Stepford Wives, 1975 one such robot is damaged, stabbed with a knife. It continues to function, making a cup of coffee, but it’s movements become awkward, repetitive, it drops cups and tips coffee on the floor. Part of the horror of the scene comes from our realisation that we are looking at a machine not a woman but there is still something very human about its/her breakdown.
Still today, if tired or under stress, the string slackens and Annabel performs a little automatic curtsy, she occasionally drops a cup.
One of the physiotherapy exercises Annabel performs is a form of face puppetry. She has to imagine an invisible thread running from the tip of her finger to the corner of her lips or cheek or eyebrow. She lifts a finger and her lip curls.