Issue: Reimagining / Nonfiction

An Intermedia Essay by Karrie Higgins

Parallel Stress

by Karrie Higgins & Alan Murdock, director of photography & audio engineering assistant


CW: ableism, sexual abuse


My Parallel Stress series began as a response to Dennis Oppenheim’s iconic 1970 performance by the same title. He stretched his body in plank position between two unfinished concrete walls, held it for ten minutes, and documented the position of greatest stress. It was an investigation into the body’s relationship to the built environment—or more specifically, an able body’s relationship to the built environment.

Dennis Oppenheim, 1970. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.



Dennis Oppenheim, 1970. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

[alt-txt for this image: Black and white photo of a man stretched in plank position between two breeze block walls, back severely arched in a deep u-shape.]


I wanted to explore the disabled body’s relationship to the built environment and the points of greatest stress—often gaps in accessibility created by ableds.

In I am trying to get as honest as I can, I break away from my other pieces in the series to explore a point of stress in the social architecture: who gets believed.

Father of modern criminology Cesare Lombroso equated epilepsy with criminality, cleverness, cruelty, and dishonesty. The stigma persists. Editors and readers have labeled my experiences fiction, lies, and daydreams because they do not conform to neurotypical biases and expectations. Publications have demanded I cut my epilepsy from my story–a total erasure of my identity and my marginalization.

Meanwhile, in her memoir Lying, Lauren Slater appropriated my disability as a metaphor for her relationship with her mother, and her book gets held up by my neurotypical friends as an edgy commentary on “truth” in nonfiction because Slater, too, equates epilepsy with dishonesty.

Epilepsy doesn’t illuminate anything about truth because it has nothing to do with truth. What it does illuminate is neurotypical bias about who is capable of truth.

In 2013, I submitted to a polygraph about my (now deceased) brother Greg sexually abusing me from ca. 1980-1986. In a control question polygraph like the one I took, high cognitive load looks like lying. It’s problematic because temporal lobe epileptics experience high cognitive load on a consistent basis; our disruptions in working memory, caused by hippocampal sclerosis, are similar to those experienced by war veterans with traumatic brain injuries. The assumptions of the polygraph represent another manifestation of neurotypical expectations and a “gap” in accessibility to justice, to publishing, and everyday credibility. Lombroso becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In my case, even with a “truthful” result (an outcome complicated by my minimization of my brother’s abuse during the pre-test interview and my dissociation during the test), an editor called my experiences daydreams and said my epilepsy was irrelevant, even though it put me at a 90% risk of the very abuse discussed in the polygraph.

For this piece, I engineered the audio to mimic my experience in an audiologist booth being tested for Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD), which is most likely caused by my Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. It is like dyslexia, except with sound. I want to accommodate neurotypicals into my neurodivergent world of epileptic memory, PTSD triggers, dissociation, ADD, and CAPD, similar to pieces where I have recreated the experience of Bipolar. I created an uncomfortable intermedia “situation” which mimics my subjective experience of the polygraph.

The video is a split screen. On the left: my polygraph performance on the Bonneville Salt Flats. I am seated in profile in a chair wearing a David Copperfield-print skirt with a blood pressure cuff on my left arm and a stethoscope stuck to my heart. I am listening to my own heartbeat, holding out my arms in a physically excruciating pose for my syringomyelia, a cavity in my spinal cord. On the right: my actual polygraph footage. I am seated in a small office, facing the camera, and Vern the polygraph examiner is mostly off-camera.

A taped phone call of my brother talking to his final sexual abuse victim in 2007, recorded by the police, runs in “parallel stress” to my lie detector. Who is truthful?

For those who need or desire captions, I created a separate caption video to run concurrently in an attempt to create a visual equivalent of “parallel stress.” Split-screen captions were not possible on YouTube, and because the video has ten audio tracks, the entire image would be blotted out by text.

For greater accessibility, I have also provided a PDF with the captions side by side and a text file in linear presentation.


side-by-side text in a table (PDF)

linear — not side by side (.rtf)


Note: Best through headphones or streamed into hearing aids if you wear them for the audiologist booth effect, as sound is directional in this piece.


Parallel Stress Video: 



Parallel Stress Captions Video: 




[alt-text for this image: Scan of polygraph results that say: “A numerical system is used in evaluating polygraph charts an aggregate score of-5 to+5 is deemed an inconclusive test and no opinion of trust or deception is given by the examiner. A score of +6 or treaters is truthful polygraph result. A score of -6 or greater is a deceptive polygraph result. The aggregate score of the polygraph test for Karrie Higgins is +6 or greater indicating truthful. it is the final opinion of Vern Peterson, That Karrie Higgins is Truthful when Karrie Higgins answer the questions about Greg having sexual contact with her when she was a child. The following examiners have reviewed the polygraph results and have scored them. -Vern Peterson”]



karrie_headshot_pink_hairKarrie Higgins is a writer, magician, performance artist, ink-maker, forger, seamstress,  aspiring wig designer, and rebel theologian without a faith living in Boulder, Colorado. Her writing & Intermedia art have appeared in Black ClockDIAGRAMThe Manifest-StationQuarter After EightWestern Humanities ReviewHuffPostRogue AgentCincinnati ReviewThe Los Angeles Review, the LA TimesFull Grown People, and many more. Her essays have twice been notables in Best American Essays, and she won the 2013 Schiff Award for Prose from the Cincinnati Review. More:  twitter: @karriehiggins


Alan Murdock is a video and media artist working in alternative narrative forms. He studied at The University of Iowa in the first of its kind Intermedia Art Program earning M.A. and M.F.A degrees. Murdock has taught media and storytelling at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, The Art Institutes of Portland and Salt Lake City and joined the Denver Metropolitan University as an affiliate faculty in the fall semester, 2016. His work includes videodance, poststructural visual forms, social media and traditional narrative video production. To read weekly posts on various alternative art forms, follow on Facebook: Murdock Arts  and Twitter @DesignBizProf