Hidden Damage

Page 4 of 12

"It was like having to learn to love a different person," Morgan says. "It was painful. And it was devastating to her, because she didn't understand what was happening."

Brain researchers often point to the case of Phineas Gage as a dramatic example of how a brain injury can affect personality. A railroad foreman, Gage had a long metal rod driven completely through his skull by a blasting mishap in 1848. Except for the loss of an eye, Gage was seemingly left intact by the freak accident. But for the rest of his life, the formerly upright Gage behaved in an entirely scandalous manner; the rod had torn up the moral compass in his frontal lobes. He used profanity freely, cheated his friends and otherwise thumbed his nose at social convention. He was, in short, a completely different person.

No one mourns the changes in McClelland more than her older sister, Shannon Disheroon. Before the accident, the two had been particularly close. Sunserea used to love to hear Shannon sing gospel; now it's just noise to her. And Sunserea's prior social skills have been disrupted by impulsiveness and what psychiatrists call "disinhibition"; Shannon is startled to hear her sister blurt out inappropriate sexual remarks, for example, or make a crude comment about someone's weight.

"I shared a bed with Sunserea for the first fifteen years of my life," she says. "I knew her like the back of my hand, as well as one sister can know another. And the person I know died that day. Our relationship is not the same at all."

McClelland doesn't dwell on the changes, but she becomes emotional when talking about what the ordeal has meant to her kids. "They've lost out on a lot," she says. "A lot. It changed their lives completely. We lost our independence. Jaysun had to take on a lot of responsibility, help his brother with his homework, help with the cooking. They've forgotten a lot of it, but it was hard on them. I couldn't play with them anymore. They couldn't be loud in the house. They couldn't be in sports because I couldn't drive them there and I couldn't pay for it. They don't deserve that."

Gradually, she has begun to grasp how the brain injury has affected her and how it will limit her future. "I don't remember ever really processing it or trying to understand it, even to this day," she says. "I learned a lot about it at the trial, but I don't remember some point where I was crushed to learn about it. There were so many things happening. I didn't have time to fit it all together."

Welcome to the Snake Farm

Eight years ago, while he was still in law school in Missouri, Greg Gold was carjacked at gunpoint in a hotel parking lot. The man ordered Gold to drive to an ATM and withdraw all the money he could. Gold told his abductor that he'd picked the wrong person to rob. As the ATM visit quickly demonstrated, Gold had a balance of negative six cents in his account.

The two men spent the next few hours driving around greater St. Louis, trying to cash one of Gold's out-of-state checks. At one grocery store, Gold furtively tried to alert the clerk to his plight, writing "HELP ME" on a check-cashing application while his companion, hand in pocket, stood nearby.

"I can't help you," the clerk snapped. "You're from out of state. It'll take two weeks to process this."

As the night wore on, Gold persuaded the carjacker to stop pointing the gun at his head. He explained why it would be a bad idea to kill him or steal his car. By the time he dropped the man off at a McDonald's, Gold had given him his phone number and offered to help find him a job.

A few months later, Gold was in Denver, looking for a job himself. Attorney John Trueax said he wasn't hiring anyone, but he agreed to meet with him. Gold told him about the carjacking. Trueax and his partner, John Kiel, decided that a guy who could talk his way out of that situation might make a pretty fair lawyer. They offered him a position with their firm.

Gold believes he can be a very successful lawyer, but like any young practitioner, he has moments of doubt. The McClelland case gives him quite a few of those moments.

Even before he knows the full scope of what he's dealing with, Gold realizes that the case isn't headed for a quick settlement. One look at the accident report tells him that much. The insurance carrier listed for the other driver is the kingpin of the industry, State Farm Insurance.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast