Patricia Neal was an Oscar-winning actress. She was a holder of one of the very first Tony Awards, and an accomplished television star. She had five children while married to author Roald Dahl. And she experienced aphasia.

We’ve been profiling well-known people with aphasia, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Gabby Giffords. Aphasia can affect anyone; even major movie stars.

Strokes During Pregnancy

Neal experienced three strokes while she was pregnant with her fifth child. She would go on to deliver a healthy child, but Neal was left paralyzed and with severe aphasia. She was able to regain mobility, but she struggled with words for two years. Sometimes she was unable to think of the word at all, and other times, she simply invented a new word in its place.

Roald Dahl and Recovery

After the stroke, Dahl was upset to learn that there wasn’t a set game plan to nurse his wife back to health. He was told that she would get one hour of rehabilitation per day, a fact that left him incredulous. Instead, he built her a program where she constantly in speech therapy and brain training.

He feared she would become an “enormous pink cabbage”, so he set up – with friends and neighbours in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire – an intensive six-hours-a-day regime. Some professionals warned this was too much, but he ignored them. Pat was coached back to normality “slowly, insidiously and quite relentlessly”. She eventually resumed her acting career, even getting another Oscar nomination.

Neal spoke about her recovery in People magazine:

During my stroke our relationship was very good. Those were terrible times, but my husband pushed me to get well. He’s really the one who did it. He pushed me to go to a military hospital for exercises and swimming, and he pushed me back into acting. I had no confidence at all after the stroke, but my husband insisted. He had married an actress, and he thought it would be good for me.

Many other stroke patients benefited from his program after he wrote a guide and inspired a new method of rehabilitation.

Aphasia and the BFG

Neal’s aphasia inspired Dahl’s character, the BFG. He wrote down all of his wife’s made-up words while she was recovering and later wove them into his infamous tale about the life of giants.

Dahl made careful notes of these neologisms, which helped with an article he was writing about her stroke for Ladies’ Home Journal, but he may have thought they would come in useful elsewhere. It would be more than 15 years before The BFG would greet little Sophie with a bellow of laughter and the words: “Just because I is a giant, you think I is a man gobbling cannybull … ! Please understand that I cannot be helping it if I sometimes is saying things a little squiggly … Words is oh such a twitch tickling problem to me all my life …”

In fact, the BFG’s explanation for his speech sounds very much like aphasia:

“You must simply try to be patient and stop squibbling … I know exactly what words I am wanting to say, but somehow or other they is always getting squiff squiddled around … what I mean and what I says is two different things …”

Patricia Neal died in 2010, but her stroke experience continues to affect people to this day.

Image: Kate Gabrielle via Flickr via Creative Commons license