R.V. Doon

Brains In Bell Jars: How Else Can They Travel?


Fair Warning: This post isn’t for the squeamish.

Someone recently asked me, “Hundred-year-old brains in bell-shaped jars? Really?”

Brains in Bell-Shaped Jars

The tone implied my story idea wasn’t believable. Well, it’s a true story that’s given me nightmares for years. Albert Einstein’s brain went on an unauthorized journey. To give the author credit, he tried to make the macabre road trip sound fun.

The aging pathologist and thief wanted to set things right, and return the brain to Einstein’s family. But look how long it took him (decades). Confession time >a similar ghoul stole my brother’s brain. Einstein’s brain was old when it went out on tour without family permission, my brother’s brain wasn’t even four-years-old. I repeat, true story.

Second confession > I couldn’t finish the book because I hated the man who stole AE’s brain. You wouldn’t enjoy it either if your loved one’s brain had been stolen.

Einstein’s brain’s travel history warranted a book to explain what happened after it was stolen. My parents don’t know what became of my brother’s brain. Indeed, the doctor who took it didn’t ask permission, didn’t get consent, and like the ghouls in horror stories he thought he got away with it. Okay, he did. But I haven’t forgotten.

My parents took my brother to my mother’s family home to bury him. The mortician, a friend of the family, told my grandparents he did the best he could to make his face look natural, but it was hard with the brain removed.

The doc who stole my brother’s brain never knew my father threatened to “kill his ass,” nor that my uncles had to tie him down to stop him from doing so. Instead, he held it together for the burial, but my parents were both changed by the brain theft. They had never heard of such a thing happening, and they felt their son’s body had been desecrated. They had a difficult time at the funeral…put yourself in their shoes.

My sisters and I were affected in the sense of the betrayal my parents experienced. A grief-like, stealth virus invaded them. We grew up with emotionally frazzled parents. I wonder if the doctor who stole my brother’s brain ever gave a thought to the consequences of the emotional aftermath?

I dreamed of that poor little brain for years and finally wrote something similar in Swarmers. This is the scoop. My brother was a little genius. According to my mother, she’d return to his hospital bed and find doctors sitting there talking to him. They were amazed by his vocabulary and intellect.  In secret they decided to steal his brain, but like Einstein’s brain, did they forget their so-called good intentions? Apparently, brains from smart people, even toddlers, were prized possessions to put on display.

Swarmers, a dark fantasy thriller, is told from the main viewpoint of four characters. Louis Janzen is introduced as he prepares to dissect his ancestor’s brain, found stored in a bell jar for over a hundred years. He’s tied up in angst, and I give him pain because Louis is a research doctor. I can’t strike back at the doctor(s) who scarred my family, but I can and do use my nightmares in my fiction.

It’s been decades and some things never lose their power over us. For me, it’s my brother’s brain. I hope it was handled with care.

During my years of being an RN, guess what I saw? Yes…body parts in glass jars.  I believe every hospital has them and imagine the numbers of bell-shaped jars I’m talking about. Some are held in dingy basements, some sit on office shelves, and some are hidden in closets that haven’t been opened in years. It’s past time for hospitals to gather the body parts in bell-shaped jars and give them a decent burial, or at least do as Cornell University did. Make it right. It’s way past time.

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