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Julia Understands Everything : 29 years ago, Julia Tavalaro had a stroke that left her dead to the outside world. But inside, life was burning more fiercely than people imagined. This is the story of that life and her remarkable journey.

December 17, 1995|Richard E. Meyer | Richard E. Meyer is a national correspondent for The Times. His last article for the magazine was on Loving County in West Texas

Julia Tavalaro heard her baby whimper, then sob, then cry. It was an omen.

She had just tucked Judy, who was 14 months old, into her little yellow pajamas and put her to bed. Her husband, George, was in the den watching a ballgame. Julia went to the living room fireplace and stood quietly, as she did sometimes to find strength, especially when she had one of her headaches.

Fondly she thought back to Judy's first birthday. There would be a party for her second one, too: hats, noisemakers . . . The pain twisted tighter in Julia's head. She would go back upstairs and get a couple of aspirins. No, she would get three. As she reached the steps, she heard Judy's first whimper. The staircase curved upward in a grand sweep. Julia held onto the walnut banister. At the top, she heard the baby shudder into a sob, then into frightened and disconsolate weeping.

Julia turned left along an open balcony, which served as the upstairs hallway. She would go down to the bathroom, get the aspirins, then come back to the bedroom and check on Judy. Suddenly Julia's vision fractured. She grabbed the balcony railing. Her head hurt worse than it ever had before. She walked slower, and things grew foggy. Judy cried louder. Julia felt her legs weaken. The walls and the ceiling began to move. Her knees buckled. Her vision dimmed, and then she fell.

She sprawled on the gold carpet, too scared to scream. Her head was heavy. It hurt so much that she had a crazy thought: Someone had parked a car on it. She could no longer see. She was afraid that she might be dying. She thought about the baby; Judy was still crying. Julia felt the family dog lie down beside her. The dog's fur was warm. Her nose was cold. She whined softly. Judy's cries grew faint. Now Julia could not feel. She could not hear. Her last thought was: "Baby, stop crying."

For Julia Tavalaro, 31, blond, striking and full of life, it was the start of a nightmare rare in America, perhaps the world. She was having a stroke. Within days she suffered a second one. Then, for six years, at best estimate, she lived what others know only in the terror of their dreams. She regained consciousness, but no one noticed. Worse, she was paralyzed, and she was mute. She had no way to let anyone know that she was there, inside. She was aware, but she was trapped, locked in. She was buried alive.

She lay in a hospital bed, fully cognitive. She could see, hear, feel, taste, smell, understand, remember and think. She ached with deep emotions. But she was helpless. She tried hard to communicate. She could move her head and eyes ever so slightly, but her movements were barely perceptible. She could cry, even scream, but her cries sounded like puerile whining and her screams like guttural howls. They only fed the misperception that her body was present but her mind was not.

People ignored her. No one told her what had happened, or what would happen next. She felt alarm, then fear. Julia had fire in her soul, and it forged the fear into anger. But weeks, then months melted her anger into despair. She seemed less than human, less than animal, then less than deadwood. She lost track of time. Her days choked on memories, worries and fantasies. Her nights overflowed with bad dreams. She came to realize that she was not dying. Worse, she could not even kill herself.

Now, nearly 30 years later, Julia is back. She was discovered. Therapists, two in particular, began a long and painful effort to coax her out and to convince the world that she was there, and indeed had been there all the time. Her fire, a volatile mix of independence, willpower and appetite for life, served her well. It gave her an invincible determination to survive. Even when her life was at its most unbearable, she persevered. In the end, she refused to surrender to psychosis or death.

She is still paralyzed and cannot talk. But with a computer sensitive to her head movements, she can write. She is a poet. Some of her work is dark, some is angry, some lyrical. She is writing a book of poetry and memoirs for Kodansha, publisher of the centenarian Delaney sisters, whose memoirs were a recent bestseller. Julia is bright, witty, independent and sensitive. She speaks by moving her eyes as her visitors point to letters on an alphabet board and find the ones for what she wants to say.

It is a hard way to talk; untangling a single memory can take most of a morning. This is the story of what happened to Julia, most notably what it was like to be imprisoned inside of herself. It is based on medical records and the recollections of family and those who gave her care. It is based, as well, on 450 hours of conversation with Julia, on her letter board, month after month, over much of a year. It is a story of utter tragedy and the triumph of a woman with uncommon courage.

*

Julia Tavalaro was born in the village of Inwood, N.Y., a small blue-collar town on Long Island. Her family called her Julie.

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