My right side always hurts. First, my wrist: ligaments too floppy. Then my hip: the ball joint misshapen so that it rubs against the socket, tearing the protective labrum between. The hip pain spreads to my knee: I can’t hike down a steep hill without a sharp, stabbing sensation. Wading in a river, I kicked a rock and broke a bone in my right foot. Because of scoliosis, my spine curves slightly to the right, as if my whole body is trying to distance itself from the left.
Being right. Doing things the right way. Right side up. Knowing your rights. Make it right. He was in the right. She wasn’t in her right mind.
The right hand holds onto things so tightly that the tendons passing through the small carpal tunnel in my wrist are inflamed, tugging at the soft flesh lining, causing a burning pain every time I work too hard, grasp too much. The right hand likes control. My handwriting has never been precise, as much as I’ve tried to force it to be. It has always splotched and looped all over the page, loose and irregular even as I grip my pen tighter, tighter, trying to force uniformity and structure on the shifting, unnamable radiance that sometimes spills out. The right hand raises itself in class, takes tests, pushes buttons on a calculator. The right hand adds and subtracts, always knows what is left over, but not what is missing.
The right side is my father telling me that I am too emotional, too much. That my feelings are irrational and therefore shouldn’t exist.
“Left-handed” in Greek means ill-omened. “Left-handed” in French means clumsy. In German, it means awkward. In Italian: maimed.
The word sinister comes from Latin. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives several definitions, including: “Of, relating to, or situated to the left; of ill omen by reason of being on the left; accompanied by or leading to disaster.”
When I write with my left hand, a different voice emerges: raw, childlike, and honest in a way that the voice of the right hand isn’t. The left side thinks in emotion; it sees the future and intuits the past. The left side doesn’t hurt. Instead, it chooses to unclench, to let go and dissolve into something bigger than itself. It knows a reality far greater and more mysterious than the one against which the right side blindly bumps.
I’m not left-handed, or even ambidextrous. Like the majority, I seem inclined to the right, even the righteous. Yet I’ve always been attuned to the sinister, the mysterious, the uncharted.
I was six when the voice woke me. The summer night pressed in from all sides, loud with the scratchy music of crickets. I stared into the space in front of the bed, eyes wide. The big room was all dark corners and soft edges. A gentle breeze blew in through the open windows, and I could smell fresh-cut grass and the cool wetness of dew.
The voice came again, a deep man’s voice, saying kindly, “Little girl, can you help me?” My body grew stiff, and I pulled the thin covers to my chin. I was not dreaming.
When we were kids, my older sister Sarah and I spent hours drawing every day. She made gorgeous charcoal studies of her left hand, inspired by the ones in Leonardo DaVinci’s sketchbook. I drew herds of wild horses galloping across 8.5×11” sheets of printer paper, or pioneer families lined up from shortest to tallest, the baby toddling at the left-hand side of the page, with the stern father towering at the right.
My mom loved art and had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago for several years before dropping out. She always encouraged our creativity, sometimes joining us at the battered oak dining table, splotched with wispy water stains from the jars into which we dipped our paint brushes, embedded with pieces of glitter from making Christmas cards, and covered in a fine crust of Elmer’s glue.
Sarah and I had a book called Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain, which was based on research showing that some people were more “left-brained” and others more “right-brained.” The left brain controls the right side of the body, and the right brain controls the left. The exercises in the book were supposed to get you out of your stuffy, party-pooper left brain and unlock the world of your wild, free-spirited right brain, which would theoretically make you a better artist. I quickly gave up on the book’s many detailed drawing exercises, but Sarah persisted. One of the instructions asked you to look at a picture of a face upside down, while you tried to sketch it right side up. This is the only exercise I remember. Seeing the world upside down inherently made sense.
When the voice without a body spoke, I wished I was dreaming. With all my effort, I peeled my eyes away from the darkness in front of me and looked over to the mattress where my parents were sleeping. Maybe my dad was talking in his sleep. His endless renovation of our house had left the downstairs in shambles that summer, so we all slept in the big room upstairs, on a row of mattresses thrown on the floor. But my father wasn’t talking; he was snoring loudly, like the sound of a rusty saw being drawn through wood.
The man’s voice came again: gentle, patient. “Little girl… can you help me?”
He didn’t say what kind of help he needed, but my mind filled in the gaps. Was there buried treasure in the basement? Did his murdered body, lying in a shallow grave by the apple tree, need a proper burial?
In the sweaty darkness, I pulled the covers over my head, trembling. The voice didn’t come again, but I waited a long time before drifting back to sleep.
Brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor witnessed herself having a stroke that affected the left hemisphere of her brain. She describes this hemisphere as our incessant mental chatter, that voice that’s always remarking on our experience, categorizing and judging. Buddhists might call it ego: that constant whisper that I am important, that I exist, separate and distinct from a chair, a cat, or an apple. It’s the part that believes that our consciousness is locked up in the tower of our brains, all alone. The part that makes us forget our inherent interconnectedness with the rest of the universe.
As Bolte Taylor’s left hemisphere shut down, she experienced a state of ecstasy in which she perceived herself as an “energy being”—the atoms of her hand impossible to differentiate from those of her bathroom wall. In this blissful state, she felt connected to everything, part of “one human family.”
In the world of the left brain, there is only one reality. In the world of the right brain, there are many.
Jesse Baker, my maternal grandfather, was left-handed. In the tight-lipped, Christian, Iowa town of his boyhood, being left-handed was a sign of the Devil.
Before Jesse’s father started working as a coal miner, he was a Pentecostal preacher. I imagine him sweating through his best shirt at the front of a dingy storefront, yelling and spitting and laying hands on the calico bodies of timid farmwives, writhing with abandon on the hardwood floor, wailing and laughing, for once forgiven a moment of emotion.
Did Jesse’s father try to beat his left-handedness out of him, this sign of the Devil in his eldest son? If he did, it’s been forgotten. My mother only told one story about the violence Jesse’s left hand attracted.
In this story, I see my grandfather as a boy, sitting at his small wooden desk in the one-room schoolhouse in Johnston, Iowa. Jesse is writing with his left hand. I imagine the teacher’s shadow rising up suddenly beside him like nightfall creeping from between trees, then the sound of the teacher slapping Jesse’s evil hand with a hickory switch until bright lines of blood lay across the palm. I see the glimmer of fear that might have lit the teacher’s face as the sturdy blonde boy stared back at him with fierce blue eyes. The Devil was cunning. When Jesse refused to stop writing with his left hand, the teacher tied it behind his back. I imagine how my grandfather furrowed his brow and slowly pushed the wavering pencil with his right hand, trying to ignore the growing pain as the left hand pricked with fire, then went numb.
The original research about the difference between “right-brained” and “left-brained” thinkers was done by Nobel Prize winner Roger Sperry in the 1960s, which inspired books like Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain. According to Sperry’s research, the left brain is more analytical and orderly than the right brain. It’s connected to logic, sequencing, linear reasoning, mathematics, facts, and thinking in words. The right brain is more visual and intuitive, connected to imagination, holistic thinking, intuition, arts, rhythm, nonverbal cues, feelings, visualization, and daydreaming.
The left-hemisphere list perfectly describes my dad: the one who studied industrial design, who taught himself carpentry and started his own business, becoming a master of his craft, and whose clients formed a breathless following. Who read Scientific American, National Geographic, and any book by Bill Bryson, draping his six-foot-six frame onto whatever second-hand couch we had that year. Who taught me about the solar system and the behavior of planets as we lay on our quiet country road, words I didn’t understand flowing around my head and into the warm blacktop. Whose form of meditation was picking bugs off the potato plants in our sprawling garden, a floppy beige hat shading his eyes, his strong fingers delicately shooing the beetles into a bucket of soapy water.
The right-hemisphere list perfectly describes me.
When I told my father about the voice, he looked down at me sternly from his towering height and said I was dreaming. Sarah’s friend said it was the Devil. My father didn’t believe in God or the Devil. My mother said, “Anything is possible; we just don’t know,” but she looked at me with concern in her eyes. I wasn’t sure what I believed, but I didn’t think the Devil would sound so kind.
As I grew into a teenager, then into my twenties, other experiences began to accumulate that I couldn’t explain: a vision of a small boy on the basement steps, a sudden icy coldness on my legs, a horrible feeling in a house where I spent the night, where I later discovered that a man had killed himself.
I didn’t tell these stories to my father.
When Jesse was a young man, struggling to find work in Chicago during the Great Depression, a friend suggested they go distract themselves by seeing a woman who claimed she could talk to the dead. Jesse was reluctant but went along. He and his friend sat with the crowd of others who had come to hear the medium speak. She scanned their faces, and her eyes settled on my grandfather.
“There’s someone who wants to speak with you,” the medium said to him. Nervously, Jesse walked to the front of the room and took the empty chair across from her. She began to describe the man who was trying to contact him and said he had a metal plate in his head. Through the medium, the man told Jesse that he would marry Helen, the woman he was courting, and have four children with her: two girls and two boys.
Jesse’s heart pounded as the medium spoke, but when he rose from the chair and walked out into the bright afternoon, he laughed about it with his friend.
“I don’t know any man with a metal plate in his head, let alone a dead one,” he scoffed. It wasn’t until later that evening, when he was alone, that he remembered. Jesse had worked with a man in the National Guard years before, and his friend indeed had a metal plate in his head, where a bullet had entered his skull during the First World War. Miraculously, he had lived, sustaining no permanent brain damage. Jesse had fallen out of touch with the man after their service ended. It was only now that he realized the man must be dead.
Jesse would go on to marry Helen. They had two girls, then two boys. When Helen had their first child, the hospital staff wouldn’t let Jesse into the delivery room. Pumped full of hallucinogenic drugs to numb the pain, Helen screamed at the top of her lungs, and Jesse was so terrified that he imagined breaking down the door to get to her. When the second baby was due, Jesse decided to stay at home, but that didn’t provide relief. In the big, empty house, he heard footsteps pacing slowly back and forth on the second floor. When he went upstairs to investigate, there was nothing, but as soon as he returned to the first floor, they started up again.
I don’t know if my grandfather believed in ghosts. There is so much that remains unknown, so much that haunts me.
The narrow country road unwound in the beam of my headlights. I was eighteen, and it was the last summer I would live at home. I had the windows rolled down, and the moist summer air caressed my arms, blowing hair into my face. I smelled the damp sweetness of freshly mown alfalfa in the fields. I could just make out the tall, black shoulders of the hills against the night sky, dotted with the glowing pinpricks of stars. Patsy Cline’s deep, bittersweet voice filled the car, and I sang along: I go out walkin’, after midnight…
I was used to driving these roads. Nestled in the unglaciated Driftless region of southwestern Wisconsin, my parents’ house was perched on a high ridge. Pleasant Ridge, as it was called, fell away into deep valleys on either side, chiseled with sandstone outcroppings and laced with springs that flowed with sweet, clear water. The roads snaked through the rugged land, and I was as familiar with their curves as I was with my own body.
In this confidence, I drove fast. Just where Upper Wyoming turned into Weaver, I rounded a turn where the forest pressed right up against the road, and it was impossible to see more than a few yards in front of me. Suddenly, an internal voice said, Slow down! And without thinking, I slammed on the brakes, just as a white-tailed deer leapt out of the woods in a graceful arc, barely missing my car.
I drove the last mile home, slow and shaking. I had recently heard about a woman who was killed on a nearby road when a deer went through her windshield. As my car climbed the steep hill toward Pleasant Ridge, a wordless knowledge began to take shape within me: if I valued my life, I had to listen to this strange knowing, even if my father and the rest of the world thought I was crazy.
At thirty-five, I published an essay that dealt with, among other things, my life-long encounters with ghosts. It felt incredibly vulnerable to share about my supernatural experiences so publicly for the first time. I sent the essay to my parents. My mom wrote back, praising my writing and congratulating me on the publication. My dad didn’t say anything. When I told him I was hurt by his radio silence, he exploded. He said he didn’t believe what I had written.
The air left my lungs as if I’d been punched. Through sudden, hot tears, I asked, “Even if you don’t believe me, can you still accept me?”
My dad sputtered and side-stepped, but in the end, the answer was in the silence underneath his words.
When I was about five years old, I stood in our small bathroom, staring at myself in the mirror. The yellow afternoon sun slanted through the curtains and illuminated one side of my face, making the little golden hairs on my round cheek shine. I was mesmerized by my face in a way that I never had been before, as if I was seeing myself for the first time. I took in the tangle of blonde hair falling to my shoulders, my intense blue eyes, the glisten of spit on my lips as I licked them.
Suddenly, I was hovering somewhere just above and to the left of my body, as if peering over my own shoulder. I felt an ache of surprise rise within me, a sweeping wave of memory without any specific image—something like déjà vu. A voice that belonged to the part of me that now floated above the little blonde girl groaned, “I’m so young.” The disembodied thought hung in the air for a moment, reverberating with dazzling truth. Then my child-self blinked in surprise, and consciousness snapped back into my body, once again five years old. I took one more furtive look at my face, then ran from the mirror.
I am still searching for ways to tell my father who I really am.
While writing this essay, my father told me that Roger Sperry’s theory about “left-brained people” and “right-brained people” had been disproven.
I dug around online and found the study, published by researchers at the University of Utah in 2013. I only made it through the abstract, pausing every few seconds to reread each sentence, ones like: “Lateralized brain regions subserve functions such as language and visuospatial processing. It has been conjectured that individuals may be left-brain dominant or right-brain dominant based on personality and cognitive style, but neuroimaging data has not provided clear evidence whether such phenotypic differences in the strength of left-dominant or right-dominant networks exist.”
This kind of language is something my dad would breeze through. In fact, he’d probably be able to quote it to me years after reading it. It’s just how his mind works. He’s comfortable in the world of provable facts and figures. Something about the unquantifiable unsettles him, even as science itself is constantly bumping up against the unknown. My dad can talk calmly about quantum theory and the possibility of parallel universes, but speaking of ghosts still makes him irrationally angry. I may never understand this paradox.
As I kept tunneling into research about right/left brain thinking, my dad’s assertion that Sperry’s theory had been disproven turned out to be more complex than he’d led me to believe.
A 2018 documentary called The Divided Brain takes up the work of psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, whose 2009 book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World not only furthers the idea that our left and right brains have very different personalities, but that our culture’s worship of left-brained thinking may be leading us toward disaster.
A 2017 post on the Harvard Health Blog by Robert H. Shmerling strikes a middle path, acknowledging that “it’s probably inaccurate” to link specific personality traits to one side of our brains. But Shmerling also points out that the lack of solid proof supporting right/left brain thinking “does not prove the opposite. For people living thousands of years ago, an inability to prove the earth was round did not prove the earth was flat!”
Where my father sees a closed door, I see a landscape that has yet to be mapped.
I lie on the acupuncturist’s table, sleeves rolled up, pant legs pushed above my knees. I am still trying to heal my physical and emotional body. Despite years of working to trust myself, to acknowledge the gift I have and the powerful wisdom it has to impart, the wounds of doubt are still there.
As the needles go in, I take deep breaths, following the ache twinging throughout my body. Slowly, the pain dulls, followed by waves of energy that twitch my limbs and make me want to jump off the table and take laps around the room. Finally, these sensations also fade to a slight, shimmery tingle.
My father wouldn’t believe in this either: medicine that hasn’t yet been proven effective by Western science.
Lying underneath the white cloth, I relax into the sensations in my body and feel a deep sense of letting go.
I believe in this. Is that enough?
Doing research on the brain’s hemispheres, this passage stayed with me: “Although the two sides function differently, they work together and complement each other. You don’t use only one side of your brain at a time.”
In a way it seems obvious—even though different parts of the brain may serve different functions, it needs all of its parts in order to work at full capacity. Left and right, known and unknown—maybe the real problem is that we’ve decided that they’re opposites. What possibilities open up when we acknowledge the complexity—not only of our brains—but of our shifting, inherently mysterious human experience?
While the brain might know how to work seamlessly across hemispheres, my father and I still don’t. Will we ever find a way to meet in the middle, somewhere between facts and feelings? Will we ever find a way to talk about our experiences in a way that brings us together instead of pushing us apart?
Those answers remain unknown. But when I leave the dim acupuncturist’s office and step out into the early June sunshine, for the moment I feel light-headed, buoyant. There is no pain in my body: the left and right, the sinister and the righteous have glided into a state of balance within me.
For the moment, I feel perfectly whole.
Rebecca Jamieson's writing has appeared in publications such as Entropy, Mid-American Review, The Offing, Hunger Mountain, and Rattle, and includes a chapbook of poetry, The Body of All Things. She is a contributing editor to Isele magazine and the founder of Contemplate Create, where she teaches creative writing with a mindfulness lens. Rebecca holds an MFA in Writing & Publishing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives on Ho-Chunk land in Madison, Wisconsin.