The Patience Stone

Set in an unnamed war-torn country assumed to be Afghanistan, The Patience Stone follows the story of an equally unnamed man and woman as he becomes comatose after a skirmish with a bullet lodged in his neck, and his wife must take care of him in their shabby rooms while the war rages outside. A wheelchair-using neighbor is similarly affected, also unable to use the emergency shelter because of several stairs.

Hospital care is non-existent and the “serum” the man needs for nutrition is expensive and hard to obtain. The man’s brothers never show up to evacuate him or provide the serum, so the increasingly desperate woman turns to prostitution. (She folds the man up and hides him behind a curtain to receive visits from a young soldier unable to talk to other girls because of a stutter.) But having never had a chance before to express herself to her husband without censure, the woman slowly begins to tell him her innermost thoughts. In this way, the husband unconsciously embodies the mythological synguĂ© sabour, the Patience Stone which absorbs the suffering of those who confide in it… until it can handle no more, and explodes, destroying the world.

The film’s depiction of the care of a comatose person is so minimalist as to be ridiculous, and the film must be interpreted as more of an allegory of suffering and retribution in war and marriage than an accurate depiction of brain injury and disability. But seen through the lens of disability, the film can also be read as a depiction of caregiver burnout. With no family or societal support for the caregiver, it’s little wonder their little world implodes.


Marwencol is the fictional miniature town creation of artist Mark Hogancamp, who uses the model-building and elaborate staged scenarios of his World War II-inspired tableaux as both occupational therapy and art therapy following an assault by a group of men which left him with physical injuries, brain damage, and a side order of PTSD. (It is explained in one of the deleted scenes from the “extras” section of the DVD that the fictional WWII era Belgian town’s name is an amalgam of “Mark” and some female friends’ names.)

Mark had had artistic inclinations before the assault, in which a group of teenage boys literally kicked his head and stomped on his face, after they had overheard him telling someone in a bar that he was an occasional cross-dresser. In the movie, he shows some of the drawings he had made prior to the attack, and explains that his hands are now too shaky to do similar drawings, so the model-making that goes into his modified dolls, miniature interior and exterior settings, and vehicles contributes to his own efforts to restore his coordination and former spatial abilities. Mark’s pre-injury drawings were used as State’s evidence in proving the extent of the damage to his brain by showing how the assault had affected his abilities afterwards.

Mark’s extensive brain injuries had the effect of separating him from certain aspects of his past. His case of amnesia is serious enough that he claims not to clearly remember having been married. He had the wedding picture and every so often, he said, he would get (mental) “snapshots”, the occasional visual memory from his past, but nothing cogent, no clear narrative of the time they were together or particulars about her. He refers to the time after the injury as his “second life”. He not only got a second chance at life when he could have died, but he had the opportunity to “start fresh” in areas of his life he otherwise might not have. He showed on camera a set of self-written and illustrated graphic novel type books which he called “the alcohol journals” in which, prior to the injury, he had documented alcohol-motivated behavior. His former employer said on camera that he had often been absent from work due to his former life as a problem drinker. Since the amnesia from the injury resulted in his not being able to remember the feelings he got from alcohol, he said he decided to stay away from alcohol for the future, thus effectively ending a path of alcohol abuse.

It is explained elsewhere in the film that Mark received only a limited amount of occupational therapy following the reconstructive surgery on his face. The extent of the damage to his brain was such that Mark had to start life after the injury from almost the beginning, having to literally learn to walk again. Samples of writing exercises are shown in which Mark was directed to practice pre-writing motions in order to re-learn the strokes to write in cursive. The powers-that-be discontinued all such rehabilitative therapy well before it could be said that Mark was restored to his former abilities. As an example of this, in one part of the film, Mark is shown walking by the side of the road with a model vehicle on a string. He explains that though a disability such as his brain injury is not obvious to others, it affects common everyday activities such as this. He cannot “walk and look around” as others do. If he takes his eyes away from the white line at the side of the road on which he is walking, he soon finds himself straying far from the line and in danger from the traffic.

Less tangible, but still in need of remediation, is the emotional fallout from the event. Mark uses the sort of doll play (stories and scenarios in a tangible, time-specific setting) commonly associated with little girls, to work out some of his feelings about the assault and his place in the world in general. Having unwittingly re-invented play therapy, Mark voices the regret that he has no one to talk to. If he had psychotherapy or counseling of any kind, it has not been continued. He presumably lives on Social Security Disability payments and works 1 day a week in a restaurant called The Anchorage, where he had worked full-time prior to the incident. Most of the women he meets are married or otherwise uninterested, so he reproduces them in doll form and adds them to his storyline. His friends are baffled but honored to be added to his “collection” and fantasy world as “good guys”. The “bad guys” are society’s easy targets: male dolls in SS uniforms, though Marwencol is an otherwise strangely peaceable town where 1/6 scale German and Allied uniformed action figures lay aside their arms, go to the miniature bar, party, and have a good time. His fantasy world has a disproportionately high female population: 27 Barbies. After having been assaulted, he clearly identifies with the female characters’ vulnerability, and stages a scenario in which the Barbies gruesomely defeat the Nazis.

Mark Hogancamp poses and photographs action figures in the fictional WWII era Belgian town Marwencol.

Mark Hogancamp poses and photographs action figures in the fictional WWII era Belgian town Marwencol.

A photographer friend gives him a camera, enabling Mark to photograph his tableaux. The photographs and story scenario become good enough for Eospus magazine to publish. The editor arranges an art exhibition in NYC at White Columns gallery for Mark’s photos and some of his dioramas. It is with mixed feelings and some trepidation that Mark puts together the pieces for the gallery show (he is afraid of having them lost, damaged, or otherwise taken away from him). However, though the PTSD causes him to fear large numbers of people and retreat from noise and hustle and bustle, he recognizes that people want to meet the artist, so being physically present in NYC for the gallery opening of his show is a necessary evil.

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge

The HBO biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge , though focused on the singer/actress’s professional triumphs and disappointments, nonetheless offers a brief glimpse into her private life with her brain-injured daughter Harolynn.

Harolynn’s birth was a difficult one, though the doctors and nurses seemed to give no indication that she had acquired any disabilities because of it. As she grew, Dandridge realized her verbal skills were not progressing, and began taking her to a string of doctors who prescribed such remedies as hot baths and head massages. Finally (as young Harolynn stares blankly ahead and kicks repetitively at the furniture), a woman doctor bluntly informs Dandridge that Harolynn has anoxic brain damage from birth, and advises Dandridge to place her in an institution and get on with her life. (Perhaps today she would have been diagnosed with autism.) Dandridge refuses, but her husband (who once had hopes of sending their daughter to finishing school in Switzerland) can’t handle the pressure and leaves them.

Dandridge hires caregivers and nurses at first, but mounting bills and career misfortunes necessitate moving to a small apartment. The final straw came when she got involved with an abusive man who stole over $120,000 of her money; Helen Calhoun, whom Dorothy had been paying handsomely through the years to look after Harolynn, returned her when Dorothy could not longer pay for her care. In a tearful scene, Dandridge relinquishes parental rights so Harolyn could be cared for in an institution at age 18. Harolynn is briefly seen next to her crying mother in the courtroom; her limbs appear contracted, her lower lip juts out, and she seems unfocused and unaware of the goings-on around her.

Harolyn does not appear again in the film, though at one point her mother expresses the wish to get her back as her motivation for trying to make a comeback. She died suddenly before returning to the stage though, and her death was ruled an accidental prescription drug overdose. Ironically, she had just completed an autobiography, and would have given the profits to charities for mentally retarded children.

Harolyn reportedly lived out her days in a state mental institution in Camarello, California. She (again, reportedly) died at the age of 60 on April 14, 2003. No one claimed her body. Other reports state that she is still alive and living in an institution; if those reports are true, she would be around 67. Due to medical privacy laws and the wishes–or neglect–of her remaining family, it is likely we will never know for sure.

The real Dorothy Dandridge reportedly carried a picture of Harolynn wherever she went, both before and after relinquishing her.


Set in the 1800s, long before such things as feeding tubes, living wills, or functional MRI’s had been conceived of, Firelight tells the story of Charles, an English gentleman farmer who contracts with Elisabeth, an impoverished Swiss lady to bear him a child in secret. Elisabeth regrets her decision to give up the baby, and after a seven year-long search, convinces Charles’ sister-in-law to hire her as governess to Louisa, the defiant and illiterate daughter their union has produced. It is only then that the reason Charles wanted a child is revealed; he’s married to a woman, Amy, whose head injuries from a riding accident have left her in a coma since shortly after their wedding.

Amy is not portrayed being dressed, bathed, fed, or having her muscles stretched by servants or nurses, and yet this must happen off-screen, because she is neat, presumably clean, has a good appearance, and doesn’t have any apparent contractures or pressure sores, as might be expected after a decade comatose. She also seems to be of normal weight, in spite of the fact that feeding tubes and liquid nutrients have yet to be invented. Maids care for her, or at least sit with her as she lies in bed staring up at the ceiling, round the clock in the off-limits attic.

This isn’t Jane Eyre, though, and Elisabeth has no compunction against entering into a relationship with Charles, though he does initially experience pangs of guilt over the damage to his wife’s reputation. After one encounter, Charles reveals to Elisabeth in the light of the fire that he had sometimes thought of “letting her go”, but did not want to do so without a sure sign from his wife that she wanted to die.

Eventually the bills mount and the creditors close in (presumably from the cost of Amy’s care, as Charles seems to be the fiscally responsible one in the family). Elisabeth successfully bonds with Louisa, and it becomes apparent to Charles that Amy stands in the way of the happy nuclear family they desire.

Presumably divorce laws were tougher in those days, and few options for long-term care existed. On one particularly cold night, Charles makes the decision to euthanize his wife. He does ask Amy once more for a sign, but when none is forthcoming he dismisses the maid, opens the window, removes her blankets, and extinguishes her fireplace. The doctor is called when the next shift discovers her, and he pronounces her dead while everyone present looks askance at Charles.

Charles’ libertine father approves, and Amy’s sister presumes her death means that Charles is now free to marry her. Instead Charles and Elisabeth further defy social convention to marry and make their relationship known.