It was when Jill Taylor was young, a kid, that she first began to wonder about the brain because of what happened with her brother. She grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana, in a redbrick colonial with a maple and lilacs out back, lots of birds. By the time she was 4 and he was 5, she knew Chris (a pseudonym) was smart enough to convince adults of anything. John, the oldest, was intelligent, too, but Chris was sly and charming, a golden boy. He was beautiful, won awards in swimming and art, and "no one had a clue how dark he was," she says. "The Chris I knew was a completely different human being from the one he presented to adults." Something was off, though she couldn't say what, and after a while she thought it might be her, not him.
By high school his brilliance turned jagged. His paintings were spiky, full of eyes and beasts, his poetry unsettling, but it was easy to see him still as golden: He was made valedictorian of his class. Both parents were well educated—PhDs (her mother is a retired math professor, her father an Episcopal minister)—but quirky. "We were a family of eccentrics," Jill says. "We weren't sure what normal eccentricity was. We were in absolute denial that this kid had a brain problem, that this was a physical disorder, till we couldn't deny it anymore."
No one understood that as he enrolled in college and then got married, he was descending further and further into a world where he saw himself as Prince Michael, the future bride of Christ. One year after his sister entered a doctoral program in neuroanatomy at Indiana State University, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. "Here I was committing my academic career to the brain," she says, "and my brother was presenting with a defined problem."
The diagnosis flattened her. She'd never untangled who was different, him or her, and once the decision was in, she was relieved but also profoundly sad, and hell-bent to understand. Her academic life took on an intense focus. She decided to specialize in schizophrenia, to investigate what possible alterations could cause such a severe thought disorder, could produce the level of torment she'd seen in her brother.
When she got her PhD and took a job as a brain researcher at Harvard Medical School, however, she was immediately stymied. There were hardly any brains of schizophrenics in the lab, mainly because hardly anyone donated them. The lab received maybe five brains a year in all, out of 300 donations. She approached her boss. What if she were to go on the road and plead the case to families of schizophrenics at National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) meetings? These families were all aware of how far treatments had come. She could make them understand how much further they could go, but only with research. And research, as they say around the lab, takes brains.
With her boss' blessing, she began attending NAMI meetings as the Singing Scientist, kicking out the jams with a guitar and the "1-800-Brain-Bank" song: "Oh, I'm a brain banker, yes, banking brains is what I do / Oh, I'm a brain banker, asking for a deposit from you / But don't worry, I'm in no hurry." The families loved her. She knew what she was talking about. She was a white-coat scientist and she was one of them. Pledges for donations quadrupled.
She'd never been happier. At the lab, her research was getting awards. On the road, she was galvanizing people who'd been leveled by an illness that's often not even recognized as one. She was giving them hope, a concrete way to help. She didn't have a clue, of course, that within several years, these same people would be helping her stay alive.