Bruce Willis and the Cruelty of Aphasia

Bruce Willis at a film premiere in New York, October 11, 2019.


Charles Sykes/Associated Press

For more than a decade of sometimes happy, often difficult summers beginning in 1992, I traveled the United States with a famous entertainer who suffered from aphasia. Many people are unfamiliar with the condition or the sadness that can accompany it. It is challenging enough when the person concerned is a private individual. If it’s still a performer performing in front of an audience, courage becomes a job requirement.

Bruce Willis’ family said this week that the actor is retiring because of aphasia. Mr Willis’ family did not disclose what led to his diagnosis. Causes can be a stroke, a tumor or a severe brain injury. Common symptoms include being unable to speak in short or incomplete sentences, mixing up words, or saying things that don’t make sense to the audience.

The man I spent all those summers with was Jan Berry, half of the surf rock duo Jan and Dean, who had the national #1 hit “Surf City” in 1963.

In 1966, Berry was the driver in a car accident mirroring the 1964 Jan and Dean hit “Dead Man’s Curve.” He bore the aftermath, including aphasia, until his death in 2004.

It is a cruel suffering. For someone like Bruce Willis or Jan Berry, the world can suddenly fill with strangers who were primed to adore you for your work and who are now staring at you with stunned expressions, not knowing what to do with what they are seeing. should start.

They speak, and often what comes out is incoherent and confusing. There’s nothing you can do about it. Someone – maybe a fan – asks a question and inadvertently you seem to mock them by answering illogically or incoherently.


Surf rock duo Jan Berry (left) and Dean Torrence perform in 1978.



After the announcement by Mr. Willis’ family, I watched clips from recent films in which he appeared. Some of the reviews bordered on cruelty. I guess the critics had no idea what Mr. Willis was dealing with. In some film scenes, it seems as if Mr. Willis was filmed separately from his fellow actors while reciting lines of a sentence or two. I looked into his famous face and saw the face of Jan Berry.

On flights from one concert city to another, Jan wore headphones and listened carefully to Jan and Dean’s songs. It wasn’t out of ego. He tried to remember the words. He had written these lyrics a long time ago and sung them on records that sold millions of copies. The next night everyone in the audience would know every word. But he had forgotten them and had to relearn them before every show.

A person can only hide aphasia as long as Mr. Willis and his family seem to understand. One night on stage, Jan Berry said something into a microphone that he didn’t want to say, something humiliating. He turned to me and whispered with tears in his eyes, “I need to think more.” He blamed himself. It comes with the melancholic territory of aphasia.

Mr. Greene’s books include When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams.

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Appeared in the print edition on April 1, 2022. Bruce Willis and the Cruelty of Aphasia

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