Bill’s right brain

Surgery for a brain tumor gave this left-brained Sacramento attorney a stunning glimpse of right-brain possibilities. Now he’s a changed man.

Bill Kennedy’s wife, Arlene, was a fierce protector of her husband’s strength during his month-long hospitalization and year-long recovery. A left-brainer herself, Arlene understands some of her husband’s right-brain experiences but describes others as “beyond me.”

Bill Kennedy’s wife, Arlene, was a fierce protector of her husband’s strength during his month-long hospitalization and year-long recovery. A left-brainer herself, Arlene understands some of her husband’s right-brain experiences but describes others as “beyond me.”

Photo By Kyle Monk

Until a year ago, Bill Kennedy had spent nearly all his 60 years as a quintessential left-brainer. As the managing attorney of Legal Services of Northern California, it was his job to draw lines, separate things into categories and use language to exploit the frames through which we view the world in his quest to win the fight against poverty.

There’s good and there’s bad. Things are right or they’re wrong. Where there is injustice, there ought to be racial equity and economic fairness.

But Kennedy underwent brain surgery last year to remove a golf-ball-sized tumor snuggled between the right and left hemispheres of his brain—and the experience changed this left-brained Sacramento attorney’s world forever. He was given a stunning glimpse of right-brain possibilities similar to those Jill Bolte Taylor described as “nirvana” in her best-selling book, My Stroke of Insight.

Kennedy’s time spent exploring the right brain during his recovery was transformative. The surgery stripped him of the left-brain categories we all use to relate to people—wife, lawyer, colleague, neighbor—so his experience of them was suddenly unfiltered, visceral and overwhelmingly powerful.

And difficult to explain.

Not surprisingly, he’s spoken little of it until now.

The anti-poverty crusader

In the local anti-poverty world, Kennedy’s a rock star. The staff of 53 lawyers he manages from the Sacramento headquarters provides legal aid to the state’s northern 23 counties. The organization is sort of the ER of legal work, he said, describing its clients as people in emergency situations of losing their kids, their houses or their health care. They are society’s disenfranchised and most vulnerable members.

Kennedy’s world is large and devoted.

Clients adore him: A bag of good-luck charms from some of them—icons, prayer tokens, sobriety coins, a piece of Anasazi pottery—accompanied him into surgery. A poster created by residents of Quinn Cottages—transitional housing he helped to establish in Sacramento—reminded him of their concern every time he looked its way in his hospital room.

Colleagues esteem him as “a paradigm of compassion,” “a Renaissance man,” someone who approaches life with an almost “wide-eyed innocence,” a one-of-a-kind character with so much “charisma and enthusiasm that it makes it difficult to say no” and “one of the toughest fellows you will ever meet when he’s advocating something to assist his clients.”

Eva Paterson, president of the Equal Justice Society, describes Kennedy as one of the best people she’s ever met. Struggling to explain the man who rages against injustice and bakes cookies for a fundraising contest judged by children, she said simply: “He’s nice. I’m a lawyer, and I know lots of people who are brilliant but you want to slap them.”

Kennedy is a rock star in the local anti-poverty world with a large, devoted following. Some of his clients put together a poster—full of well-wishes, coins, scribbled notes of support—to remind him of their concern while he was in the hospital.

Photo By Kyle Monk

“Bill brings the full force of his personality, his knowledge of people and the community to identifying and defeating the causes of poverty,” said Mona Tawatao, regional counsel at Legal Services of Northern California. “It’s not all about suing people, it’s all about where your forum is. That can be the courtroom, the board of supervisors, the local planning commission, the public.”

The tumor had to come out

Nearly three years ago, Kennedy sat waiting in the chambers of the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors to testify about injustice in the health-care system when a headache struck with such force that it redefined forever his notion about pain. It was so intense that Kennedy rates the worst pain he’d experienced previously at only a “3” on a 10-point scale—the headache was “9.”

Although he managed to get through his three-minute testimony, afterwards, he sat in the gallery unable even to respond to people who spoke to him for an hour and a half until the pain abated enough for him to walk back to his office on 12th and E streets. Whether a measure of his doggedness or inability to ask for help, he then drove himself home to Elk Grove.

Like most men, Kennedy hates going to the doctor. But this pain scared him. An MRI revealed a golf-ball-sized tumor between the right and left hemispheres of his brain. It turned out to be a meningioma, a tumor that grows from the protective membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord—Kennedy calls it a “brain wart.” Doctors don’t know what causes these tumors, which are typically noncancerous and tend to appear in people between the ages of 40 and 60. They’re usually slow-growing, and Kennedy’s doctor decided to monitor his tumor—surgery might not be necessary. But by March 2008, Kennedy’s right foot had begun dragging due to pressure on the left side of his brain from the tumor, which had expanded to the size of a mandarin orange.

It had to come out.

Kennedy prepared for brain surgery like he might have readied for battle in court.

“Bill is a fighter,” Tawatao said. “He will amass all the information and figure out a strategy to beat you.”

Take the time that UC Davis shipped boxes of documents on pallets—hundreds of thousands of pages—to a non-air-conditioned barn in the heat of summer as part of discovery in a lawsuit against the university and said: “Here, you go through them.” Kennedy created a system to find what he was looking for, gathered an army of students and trained them to search the documents. “They didn’t think we could go through them,” Kennedy recalled. “But the thing is that whenever they do that [bury an opponent in paper], you know the smoking guns are there.”

Kennedy took on the challenge of brain surgery in much the same way.

He learned everything he could about the tumor, how his neurosurgeon would remove it and what to expect afterward. He prepared to hand off his job for the year he’d be in recovery. He got in shape by working out, losing weight, and strengthening his body and cardiovascular system. And knowing that his head would be shaved, Kennedy rebelled by refusing to cut his hair until, as Tawatao said, “he had this kind of outdated Kenny Rogers thing going.”

The day after his craniotomy on July 17, Kennedy joked with his nurse like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who’d lost both arms in battle yet exclaimed when Arthur knelt in prayer thinking he’d won the battle, “It’s just a flesh wound!”

Kennedy has no memory of it and doesn’t know where the energy would have come from to joke around. During most of his hospital recovery, he could concentrate only in 40-minute spurts. Social interaction stole precious energy he needed to regain speech and mobility. His wife, Arlene, and his sister stood as fierce protectors of his strength during his month-long hospitalization.

Early on after surgery, Kennedy had to learn to walk, sit and stand again without falling. As his body strengthened, he regained fluidity of motion. Recently, his physical therapist had him running wind sprints.

Photo By Kyle Monk

Recovery was hard work. In the online CarePages she wrote to keep their many friends up to date on Kennedy’s progress, Arlene described a daily regimen that began at 8 a.m. with physical therapy, continued with occupation therapy, more physical therapy, and speech therapy. After lunch, speech, occupational and group therapy filled out his afternoons.

“Every day, every hour, there was some small measure of success,” said Arlene, who works in special education where small improvements herald big successes. “It was just really amazing.”

Ask Kennedy and he credits his wife as his strength and inspiration. But Kennedy is tenacious to the point where he’d keep working even when his therapists told to him to stop. Early on, he needed to learn how to walk, sit and stand without falling. As he progressed, those techniques had to be abandoned in order to regain fluidity of motion. Recently, his physical therapist—or, as Kennedy prefers to refer to him, his personal trainer—has him running wind sprints.

“I’ll do four or five, and all of a sudden, my stride will become like a normal stride, kicking out as far as it would go without worrying about balance, and it’s thrilling!” Kennedy said, and then in a reference to the The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda, he added, “It’s like passing through the gate of power; you trust that your body is going to do this, and your body is free.”

Something beyond the physical

While dozens of friends and colleagues followed Kennedy’s surgery and recovery closely, few know of the right-brain phenomenon he was experiencing. It’s a place Bolte Taylor, the neuroscientist and author, was thrust into after she experienced a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. In the right brain, she writes, “No time exists other than the present moment,” and “Everything is connected as one.”

Kennedy first mentioned it to friends a couple of weeks after his discharge from the hospital. He said he thought he might have found that place he’d been seeking through meditation in the right brain. Wary of putting them off with what might “seem like ‘New Age claptrap,’” and remembering Socrates’ caution about dispelling the shadowy reality most people hold true, he’s spoken extensively to only a few people about it until now.

A lifelong seeker, Kennedy has never sought spiritual answers. Not a traditionally religious man, he believes, “It’s only with religion that you’ll have good people doing bad things.” He felt certain, though, that there was something to being human beyond the purely physical; he wanted a glimpse of the infamous “ghost in the machine.”

Before the brain surgery, he had used transcendental meditation, sensory-deprivation immersion and biofeedback to take him to that place. But it never lasted for more than 15 or 30 seconds at a time. After the surgery, he found it in the right brain, where he was able to luxuriate in a formless, timeless space he called “a sort of surgically induced nirvana” at will for extended periods.

Kennedy uses analogies from literature, philosophy and science to tell his stories, explain himself and argue his case. He quotes poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s admonition that embracing the distance between two people will bring them closer together to explain his love for his wife, the early 20th-century Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset to describe how we spend our lives working at the impossible task of trying to make sense out of the chaos of living and Bell’s theorem of quantum physics (about how a pair of correlated particles separated in space will mysteriously begin to move in harmony) to argue there must be something we can’t see that connects us.

A sense of wonder

Kennedy uses the postmodern painter Wassily Kandinsky to try talking about an experience that’s impossible to convey through the structure of words. With his intuitive approach to painting, Kandinsky sought, through the symbolic and spiritual importance of forms and colors to get beyond the objective and present an experience of emotion.

“How can you objectify something that is purely emotional? Kandinsky tried.”

Acknowledging that everything he experienced could simply be post-surgical brain damage, Kennedy nevertheless attempted to describe his very personal right-brain experience of “pure emotion.” Words like joy and amazing, wonder and epiphany flowed throughout his descriptions, and emotion frequently transformed his voice into an awestruck whisper.

Kennedy helped establish Quinn Cottages transitional housing, one of the region’s most successful homeless outreach programs.

Photo By Kyle Monk

“First, there’s no brain chatter,” Kennedy said on a Sunday morning in his small office, surrounded by the clutter of papers, books, photos, notes and gift from clients, and plenty of kitsch, including an “I’m the Boss” coffee mug, a Ken doll, and Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud action figures still in their packaging.

“My first thought was, ‘Am I dead?’ It wasn’t a thought; it was just ‘death.’ You just sort of … you’re trying to put … there isn’t any concern. There’s just death. Everything I experienced with a sense of wonder. It’s like, ‘My God, this is amazing!’”

In the right brain, Kennedy sensed himself in relation to people—not visually, or through his other senses, but simply as “presence.” They floated in and out of his awareness without regard for space and time. Without filters to label them as wife, nurse or colleague, Kennedy experienced them as fields of energy that defied categorization.

People of like energies from his life appeared unbidden sometimes in odd couplings. In the strangest juxtaposition, Eva Paterson, the black civil-rights attorney Kennedy works with on racial issues, appeared together with Kennedy’s white tax professor at the Pepperdine University School of Law, who had taught him that he must pay attention to tax law if he intended to fight against poverty, since it determines who gets what in America. Though he’d never drawn the connection before, Kennedy recognized its truth then. “Yes. They are the same energy!”

When visitors or medical staff spoke to him in the hospital, Kennedy recalled being present in the left brain for a time to talk with them. “In my mind, I would be normal, but 10 minutes later, I’d drop off a cliff.” Once over that cliff into the right brain, he experienced people with a true intimacy—beyond the cheap experience the word has come to symbolize—that was immediate, direct and strikingly nonpersonal.

A year later, his voice was at once somehow thick with emotion and thinned by wonder as he described his right-brain experience of his wife: “Everything that is human is embodied in her. Everything that is good, that is bad, just everything, just the magnificence of humanity was before me. This human being is probably the most magnificent thing that has ever lived, and how could you not love this complex being before you? It’s pure emotion—it’s emotion on steroids.

“The enormous humanity is in all cases awe-inspiring and led me to tears many times,” Kennedy said. “My God, I know this person! How can it be that I just know this person?”

After experiencing this right brain realm for some time, Kennedy began to sense himself in relationship to a flow of energy. “It was humanity—indistinct humanity—everything that is human. It was awe-inspiring, because it’s all part of a whole. It beckoned me to step into it, and I wanted to go there.”

Why didn’t he? Kennedy can’t answer that question, and he struggles against the confines of words to describe the flow, concluding: “It’s the well from where all the people I related to ultimately come and where they will return. Now, that sounds sort of New Age religion—I can’t make sense of what I experienced.”

Bolte Taylor offers a possible explanation: “Because everything around us—the air we breathe, even the material we use to build with—is composed of spinning and vibrating atomic particles, you and I are literally swimming in a sea of electromagnetic fields. We are part of it.”

One of Kennedy’s friends who teaches sociology at UC Santa Cruz strikes a chord with his observation that “the last thing a fish sees is the water.” Kennedy explained: “A fish doesn’t understand that it’s swimming in water. That’s just its milieu, and it communicates through that milieu—through the water. Maybe there’s some sort of medium between all people that in fact binds us that we’re not aware of?”

Kennedy is now convinced that “everything is connected.”

Gathered at Quinn Cottages transitional housing in Midtown, left to right, are James Glass, Tina Black, Kennedy, Claudia Williams (kneeling) and Tihesha Sewell.

Photo By Kyle Monk

“To suggest that it’s not is just fantasy,” he said. Bolte Taylor believes she found nirvana when her stroke left her in the right-brain realm. Kennedy too believes he “found a back door to nirvana.”

“Whether it’s true or not, what I found is what I found,” he said.

Kennedy’s access to the right brain stayed open for several months after the surgery. The door’s closed now. But the effects are lasting.

The changed man

On the one-year anniversary of his brain surgery, Kennedy was in Oakland teaching a group of public-interest advocates about social cognition and how the brain works.

“It’s a very serious challenge, because civil-rights laws have been emasculated. It is a legal problem and it is a societal problem. There have been three really evil myths that have come forward from the right, since 1973, since the collapse of the Republican Party and the resignation of Richard Nixon. There was a small group of people—I’ve got a book, The Assault on Diversity, which details how they set up their arguments. They’ve done very well. They’ve basically beat us. The three myths they perpetrate are: The civil-rights movement was great, we all supported it, but it’s over, it’s fixed; to the extent that there’s any difference in distribution of wealth and power in this country, it has nothing to do with racist action, it has to do with a problem within minority groups who won’t achieve; and race needs to come off the table. They say the problem with African-Americans is not the David Dukes or Karl Roves, who are overtly trying to oppress them, but with the Jesse Jacksons and the Al Sharptons, who are talking about race and giving people excuses not to achieve. The myth of meritocracy suggests that all things being equal, people could achieve. But all things are not equal, we have structures in this country.”

Kennedy acknowledges his tendency to repeat stories and “go on,” but he’s passionate about his work, which he describes as “a calling.” It’s not likely that he’ll change course after 35 years as an anti-poverty advocate. But his foray into the right brain has rendered him a changed man: “It’s tangible. I feel like I’m made of a different stuff. It’s almost like my life is now connected to everything with wires.”

And he’s rethinking what his life will look like going forward.

One thing on his mind is how we create groups to surround ourselves in life, defining and narrowing our experience of the world. He wonders out loud whether the edges of those groups should be softened or somehow extended to allow more people, or even whether they might enclose more tightly those closest to him.

With a master’s skill, throughout his career he’s used words—the very stuff of the analytical left brain—to separate people into “in-groups” and “out-groups.” For example: “I use the words ‘undocumented worker’ rather than ‘illegal alien,’ and when I do, people in my community recognize me as a kindred spirit.”

Opponents necessarily fell outside of Kennedy’s “in-group,” he felt he had to find a reason to hate them in order to fight injustices they perpetrated against his clients. Just as they dehumanized and marginalized his clients, Kennedy dehumanized and devalued them. Developers who refused to create affordable housing were described in a poem he wrote as “neither brute nor human / they’re senseless and unfeeling / they are cold”; the border patrol agents he sued for staging outrageously unjustified end-of-harvest-season raids in Central Valley towns were “snakes in the grass.”

“I’d get in their faces and shout at them. I’d demonize them,” he admitted, adding that since his right-brain experience of seeing all people as one, “I don’t think I can do that anymore.”

Recently, he’s noticed other changes. While staying in a hotel to attend a wedding, he found himself stopping to chat with the maids and servers—people he’d normally pass by with a casual response. He’s also taken to learning the names of the Starbucks baristas who’ve been calling him by name every morning for years. It’s happening spontaneously rather through conscious effort, this reaching out to people.

“Bill’s back, but I think his experience is still there,” Arlene said, while sitting in the serene simplicity of the couple’s modest Elk Grove home, where light filters gently through the shade of a tree outside the dining-room window and Japanese kimonos hang as art on the walls. “I like the new Bill, and I don’t think I want to go back to where we were before.”

Their careers were largely on separate time schedules before the surgery, but now Kennedy and his wife spend more time together—they go to yoga class, attend art exhibits, visit friends. They first met at a meeting Kennedy organized to plan an event that would make sure few people were available to watch a Ku Klux Klan march Bill Albers staged through downtown Modesto. The secret to their success? They offered people food to guarantee attendance at their event across town. The couple worked together off and on for several years, and have been married for 22 years. Their son, Alec, is a student at UC Berkeley. Now, alone and post-surgery, it’s almost like the couple are on a second honeymoon.

A left-brainer herself, Arlene said she can understand her husband’s right-brain experiences on a spiritual level. Some parts she describes as “beyond me.” And she admits that the flow of humanity her husband describes scares her.

Kennedy feels compelled to continue searching, driven by the profound and lasting impact of his journey into the right brain. He draws on his work as an actor during his college years in an improv group called The Sanctuary to explain. Likening the effect to a sense memory of an emotion previously felt that an actor taps into to bring forth the same emotion, such as rage or sadness, on the stage, he said:

“My experience last year created a sense memory that was like 50 megatons,” he said. “It is not like any other sense memory I’ve had, and I feel it every day. Exploring these connections for the rest of my life is something I think I have to do.”