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English professor discusses brain injuries, memoir

Daniel Heuer | Staff Photographer
A poster in Phillips Hall advertises Annie Liontas’ talk about their book “Sex with a Brain Injury: On Concussion and Recovery.”

An English professor discussed their recent memoir about their experience with traumatic brain injuries at the GW Textile Museum on Thursday.

Annie Liontas, an assistant professor of English at GW and the author of “Sex with a Brain Injury: On Concussion and Recovery,” said the conditions associated with traumatic brain injuries, or TBI, can lead to disabilities that many people have yet to fully recognize. The GW English Department hosted the book talk as part of the Jenny McKean Moore Reading Series, a reading series named in honor of a former GW playwriting student who bestowed a fund for the English Department to encourage the study of creative writing.

Liontas said they were inspired to write the memoir after sustaining three head injuries — caused by a biking accident, a baby car seat falling on their head and a pot falling on them — in 2016.  They, like most people with TBIs, were left with long-term side effects like head pain, light and sound sensitivity and memory issues that they still struggle with today. 

“I had three head injuries in a year, and everything changed,” Liontas said. “My relationship to my body, my relationship to the world, to overhead lighting — everything became a different experience.” 

Liontas said many historical figures, including Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln, also struggled with TBIs. They said their research found society has misunderstood the long-lasting effects of TBIs and the prevalence of the injuries in marginalized communities, including unhoused individuals and people who struggle with addiction. 

“I learned that people who are incarcerated or in the criminal justice system are seven times more likely to have had a brain injury before they got there,” Liontas said. 

Liontas polled attendees at the beginning of the event, asking if anyone knew people with a TBI. Liontas said the poll reflected their research discovery that while only 1 percent of people don’t know anyone with a brain injury, society still does not fully understand or accommodate people who struggle with the long-lasting conditions of TBIs.

Liontas said gender disparities, like the tendency to label women’s health complaints as fake or exaggerated, also contribute to the lack of understanding of TBIs, as women with TBIs often remain undiagnosed. They said the lack of recognition and isolation that people with a TBI face can have negative health effects, like worsening symptoms or the development of mental health conditions. 

“I was doing research on an Olympian who tragically died by suicide after two concussions and her family was devastated and absolutely blamed her suicide on untreated concussions,” Liontas said. 

Liontas said teaching at GW was the first job they had after sustaining their injuries that accommodated their needs, like finding classrooms without irritable lights and providing comfortable furniture. They said their memoir paid tribute to Connie Kibler, a former GW professor in the English department, who advocated for Liontas to receive accommodations for their TBI. 

Liontas said they hope the book encourages people to take risks because they took big risks in sharing their vulnerabilities and detailing how their brain injuries altered their entire personal life. They said the memoir details how their TBI nearly caused them and their wife to file for divorce, in addition to raising awareness of the silent epidemic of TBIs. 

“I have a responsibility and want to share these things, and hopefully help shift the culture in a small way,” Liontas said. 

Liontas said their publisher encouraged them to pick a new title to avoid the negative connotations associated with the word “sex” after the publisher’s mom saw and disliked the title of the memoir. But, they said the title encapsulates the personal trauma they went through as the result of a TBI. 

“Thanks, no thanks,” said Liontas. “I am keeping my title.”

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