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  • The Maternal Lizard Brain
  • Jody L. Keisner (bio)

Lizard Brain (lĭz′erd brān)


  1. 1. two almond-shaped clusters of cells located deep within the gray matter of the temporal lobe. The second oldest part of the brain, the lizard brain is responsible for fear and may override the thinking brain, resulting in fight, flight, or fright.

  2. 2. the part of the brain that senses danger; the amygdala.

Uses in a sentence: Emerging from the top of a spinal column at night, moonlit and glistening, the lizard brain is hardy, bent on protecting its young.

See also paleomammalian brain, the boogeyman, monsters under the bed.


When my husband and young daughter are sleeping, my house made peaceful with the hum of a floor fan and the soft hoot of a great horned owl in our backyard maple, my lizard brain buzzes with neural activity. Amber Alerts, lead-contaminated tap water, teenage jihad, cancer cells, accidental drownings. My family tree has limbs bending from inflammatory autoimmune disease: lupus, rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis. What does this mean for my four-year-old daughter Lily, who sleeps in a room across the hallway and has never been sick with anything more serious than an ear infection? Butterfly rashes and swollen fingers and toes, hands that won’t open, elbows that won’t bend.

When I was a girl, I rode the school bus with a busty girl who had an easy laugh and an I’m-up-for-anything attitude, the opposite of my shyness, my [End Page 103] flatness. The boys liked her. I admired her for possessing what I never would. We became unlikely friends until her popularity pulled us apart. A few years after we graduated high school, what she understood about her body began to change. She lost her balance and slurred her words. Swallowing became an ordeal. She moved back into her parents’ home, and in her final months she refused to talk; her resentment for the able-bodied family members who cared for her was her last defense, her last holdout against death. Degenerative brain diseases, salmonella, meningitis, Ebola, Zika virus, whole body fevers.

Once while driving to my first-period high-school biology class, I wrecked my car. Blood ran from my knees. My eyes swelled. When asked, I could name the president and told the officer who had arrived first on the scene that my mother thought George H. W. Bush was a fool on economic issues, but when I tried to complain about the loss of my lunch—a paper sack that flew from the backseat to the front when the other car and I collided head-on—I couldn’t pull that word lunch from my brain. I found a different L. “My lizard is all over the front seat,” I said. Unlike me, the other driver had been wearing her seatbelt. The officer looked at the smashed and steaming front end of my car, the now deformed guardrail into which I had spun, and then looked at me, slumped on an ambulance cot. “You shouldn’t be alive,” he said, his eyebrows raised. Two decades would pass before I would understand the implication of his words. Blind spots, fatal car wrecks, careless drivers.

Fear keeps me alone and threatens to suffocate me. I grab my husband’s shoulder and shake him. What exactly am I worried about? And how do I say it without sounding crazy? “I’m worried . . .” My voice trails off into the certain blankness of the night. Groggy, Jon mutters, “Stop listening to NPR.” He rolls away from me in our bed, unwilling to succumb to thoughts of what hasn’t happened, to thoughts of chance and vulnerability, to thoughts of loss and inevitability. But me, I’m a bipedal turtle without a shell, my foolish heart beating inches from the surface of my skin. Get a grip, I reprimand myself. You can handle this. Lily is going to be fine. Light from the neighbor’s floodlights snakes through the blinds and illuminates the lamp, casting a shadow-child with an irregularly large head on the bedroom wall. The backyard owl calls Hoo-h’HOO-hoo...


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pp. 103-114
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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