Eyes wide open

Take another look at the photograph on the cover.

What you are looking at is not a set-up shot, a faked image or the digital creation of an art director. No, the photo is real. It depicts Sacramento writer Joel Davis—eyes wide open—during his recent radical brain surgery for Parkinson’s disease, a devastating neurological disorder.

After a year on the waiting list, Davis, 41, was approved for deep-brain-stimulation (DBS) surgery—a lengthy procedure that is conducted while the patient is awake. In the writer’s words, DBS requires “two neurosurgeons; head cages, needles and implants; eye-watering pain; batteries and remote controls; and no margin of error.” (Readers of his unforgettable cover story [“The heart of the (gray) matter”] will learn that DBS also requires a strictly predetermined, mood-setting CD sequence—e.g., Annie Lennox is fine for the catheter, but slicing of the skull requires Van Morrison.)

A former freelance writer for SN&R and the Sacramento Business Journal, among other publications, Davis boasts an admirable and persistent track record as a journalist. This past year, his doggedness helped solve the famous 1980 “UC Davis sweethearts” homicide, in which two 18-year-olds, boyfriend and girlfriend, were abducted in a grocery-store parking lot and later found murdered. Davis talked the Sacramento County district attorney into pursuing a “cold hit” DNA search, and the effort—conducted more than two decades later—found the alleged perpetrator, who was serving a 16-year sentence for another crime. Davis is now at work on a book about this true-crime story.

Understandably, lately, his struggles with Parkinson’s and his journey through surgery and beyond have taken up much of his energy and focus. What makes a person want to write about his own brain surgery?

Probably the same thing that made him want to be a writer in the first place: the desire to tell a good story, the hope that it might make a difference and the knowledge that he’s the single person in the world—eyes wide open—who’ll be able to get it right. As Bob Dylan sang, “No one else could play that tune / you know it was up to me.”