Tommy McHugh: Violent Convict Gone Soft

Imagine waking up tomorrow: you look around, and realise that you aren’t in your own bed, but in hospital. The concerned woman at the end of your bed barely understands you and, in your opinion, massively overreacts to the reasonable question of who she is. This is perhaps an all too standard night out for some, but for ex-convict Tommy McHugh, the excessively offended women turned out to be his wife, and it had been an awakening in more than one sense.

Having ominously confessed to a violent past, this recovered heroin addict woke up from a week long coma into an unimaginably confusing world with an insatiable appetite for poetry, painting and philosophy. In his own words: “I could taste the femininity inside of myself”. This was quite the revelation for any 51 year old bloke, but a spot of painting at the weekend wasn’t enough for Tommy, who felt compelled to paint for up to 19 hours a day. For a man who claimed to have: “never gone into an art gallery before, except to steal something,” this was no small change and one that has left him happier than ever.

“I like what I’m being, what I am… I just plough into it, finish it, move away and then go and maybe make a clay head. I finish that and go and play with a bit of stone, come back and do another picture, sit down and write a poem, get up and make a butterfly out of birds’ feathers.”

It seemed that a limited supply of paper was his only constraint. But, ever resourceful, he quickly rectified that problem by progressing to painting every surface in his house, floor to ceiling, with pictures of animals and abstract depictions of his mind, all the while contemplating the meaning of life.

As Tommy’s memory of his time before the coma began to return over the following weeks, the Elvis Presley-style events which lead up to his hospitalisation came back to him:

“I was sitting on the toilet. I suddenly felt an explosion in the left side of my head and ended up on the floor. I think the only thing that kept me conscious was that I didn’t want to be found with my pants down. Then the other side of my head went bang!”

Tommy had suffered an extensive subarachnoid haemorrhage; a stroke where a blood vessel in the protective membranes surrounding the brain rupture. The significance of this is that the bleeding can affect a large area of the brain by spreading across its surface, and was the cause of one of the starkest examples of post-stroke personality change. Unfortunately, from a medical point of view, the exact damage he sustained can’t be assessed until the results of a post mortem are released, since a metal implant, as a result of the surgery he received, prevents a scanning of the area. However, assessment of his ‘symptoms’ points towards damage at two adjacent structures in his brain: his prefrontal cortex, where studies have shown that inhibition can increase creativity, and part of his temporal lobe, functioning in both language and interpretation of that which surrounds him.

Aside from being an incredible story, Tommy’s transition from heroin hard-man to creative kitten-lover raises some intriguing questions about creativity, criminality and personality as a whole, as well as some ethically challenging concepts. If a violent criminal can change so drastically because of structural changes in their brain, should anatomy be blamed for many forms of criminal behaviour, rendering the lock-up of individuals as an irrelevant method of punishment. It also raises the dark and morally uncomfortable implication that, perhaps in the future, the most serious criminals could be ‘treated’ for their conditions.

On a lighter note, it also offers some consolation for those of us with the creativity of a stone; suggesting we all have an innate creativity which is being suppressed by an over-active prefrontal cortex. Perhaps making a case for an addition to the extenuating circumstance form, for those with an inherent structural inability for creativity? Either way, next time you see someone picking a fight on a night out, spare a sympathetic thought for their unfortunate cortical wiring.

Dominic Parker


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