Laughter as therapy: In new video, performance artist Sally Greenhouse recounts the aftermath of breaking her neck

  • Sally Greenhouse, writer and producer of a popular one-woman show on Northampton Community Television in the 1990s, has a new video out in which she relates her experience recovering from a broken neck. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sally Greenhouse’s video “The Greenhouse Effect: Resurrected” recounts her experience dealing with a broken neck. She’s seen here at Greenfield Community Television with Ian Hamilton, her post-production technical video editor. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sally Greenhouse’s video “The Greenhouse Effect: Resurrected” recounts her experience dealing with a broken neck. She’s seen here at Greenfield Community Television with Ian Hamilton, her post-production technical video editor. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A clip from “The Greenhouse Effect: Resurrected,” a video that uses humor and drama to examine what it’s like to suffer a broken neck. Image courtesy Sally Greenhouse

  • A clip from “The Greenhouse Effect: Resurrected,” a video that uses humor and drama to examine what it’s like to suffer a broken neck. Image courtesy Sally Greenhouse

  • A clip from an earlier video by Sally Greenhouse, before her accident, about trying to dance with a broken toe. Image courtesy Sally Greenhouse

Staff Writer
Thursday, October 31, 2019

In the 1990s, Sally Greenhouse had a regular gig on Northampton Community Television (now Northampton Open Media, or NOM) with her show “The Greenhouse Effect,” a combination of performance art, monologue and comedy in which the multidisciplinary artist riffed on any number of things: her life, politics, pop culture, art and more. The show, which she wrote, directed and produced, earned her a number of awards and grants, including a New England Women in Video Foundation Award for best cable TV show.

Then in early August of 2006, everything changed: Greenhouse suffered a broken neck when, driving in Springfield, she was rear-ended by another driver who was on her cell phone. In what she sees as a near miracle, she was saved from complete paralysis by the work of a skilled surgeon at Bay State Medical Center — but her recovery has been a long and difficult one, with lingering problems from her injury.

Now Greenhouse is making a return engagement of sorts with a video that chronicles various aspects of her life since then. “The Greenhouse Effect: Resurrected,” which will be broadcast on NOM on Friday, Nov. 1, offers a satirical but also serious look at the trauma, pain and isolation Greenhouse experienced following her injury.

It’s a montage of Greenhouse speaking directly to the camera, with her image changing size and place on the screen, against a changing backdrop of images from old films, TV shows, black and white photos and other unexpected scenes — such as footage from car crashes staged to test the effect on drivers and passengers.

That kind of dark humor abounds in the roughly 45-minute video, which Greenhouse put together over the past few years at Greenfield Community Television in collaboration with technical editor Ian Hamilton, the station’s programming manager.

“Humor has sustained me ever since my accident,” Greenhouse said during a recent interview at the Gazette. “And art has sustained me — poetry, theater, music — just like I think it sustains all of us.”

But Greenhouse is still working through a lot of hardship, and her tale is often a harrowing one, with moments that verge on the surreal, like her account of being told briskly by a nurse at Bay State, as she lay in a bed awaiting surgery, not to move “because any move you make could sever your spinal chord.” Then another nurse clicked on an overhead TV for Greenhouse, whose next thought was “I was becoming paralyzed to the soundtrack of ‘Wheel of Fortune.’ ”

Greenhouse, who lives in Northampton, said she’s hoping her video can also help raise awareness of the difficulties many people with disabilities face — difficulties the average person may not be aware of because they’re not immediately apparent. She says that’s happened to her, because even though she struggles regularly with neck pain, fatigue and other issues, some people assume there’s nothing wrong with her because she’s ambulatory.

At the same time, she notes, “There’s no room for self-pity” in her work. “Without humor I wouldn’t be sitting here today,” she said. “I’ve learned that you can get through a lot with humor, with patience and just a certain amount of acceptance.”

Greenhouse, who today lives on disability, has a diverse background that includes a graduate degree from Harvard Divinity School, work as a sound editor, teaching experience in several places — she previously taught performance art at the Honors College at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and she also taught at Hampshire College — and a resume that includes theatrical and solo performances in New York City and Boston. She was an artist-in-residence at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and she was also a professional ballet and modern dancer for many years before branching into performance art.

The New York Times has called her “mordantly funny” and the Boston Globe dubbed her “the thinking person’s performance artist.”

She’s done some live performing since her accident but no longer teaches. “I miss teaching as much as performing,” she said. “But I’ve tried to stay creative, and so many people have asked me to tell my story that I thought I’d try to find a way to do that.”

A disturbing tale

Telling that story in full, Greenhouse jokes, would probably allow her to produce “a different version every month.” But in “The Greenhouse Effect: Resurrected,” she touches on enough salient points to provide a pretty good picture of a harrowing journey.

Like the accident itself. Greenhouse at first thought she had a bad case of whiplash and actually drove herself to Bay State, where she says she then spent 10 hours lying on a gurney in a hallway before a doctor finally looked at her chart and x-rays, told her her neck was broken and said he’d need to operate. (Flashing on the screen behind her as she recounts this are images of Richard Chamberlain from the 1960s TV drama “Dr. Kildare” and Hugh Laurie from FOX TV’s “House” from 2004-12.)

There’s also an alternately funny and unsettling illustration of the surgery she underwent, which included the doctor making an large incision in her neck; Greenhouse’s tiny head and upper torso appear in the incision as she describes asking the surgeon, Robert Scott Cowan, if he might consider some alternative method of treatment such as acupuncture.

All kidding aside, Greenhouse says, Dr. Cowan “is an absolutely brilliant surgeon who saved my life.” As the video recounts, her post-operative room “turned into something of a shrine” as a string of doctors and nurses came to see her, amazed that she had not become paralyzed from her serious injuries.

One of those doctors, who came into the room just after Greenhouse awoke from her surgery, offered another surreal touch: She was a fellow student from Greenhouse’s days as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College, a woman she hadn’t seen since graduation. With a backdrop of a black and white photo of a small group of well-scrubbed young women, perhaps circa early 1960s, on the screen, Greenhouse intones “I thought, ‘Eternity is going to be with my Sarah Lawrence classmates.’ ”

Back home and trying to recover — she spent months wearing a hard collar around her neck that forced her to turn her whole body to speak to someone to her side — Greenhouse relates some other strange moments with dry humor, such as seeing a trauma therapist, who asked her what animal she would most want to be. A perplexed Greenhouse finally settled on a gazelle, at which point the therapist asked her to recall her accident — but then imagine herself, as a gazelle, leaping from her car just before it’s hit.

Several months later, feeling a little bit better, Greenhouse signed up with a dating service and eventually met an an academic, from Harvard University, who turned out to be a leading authority on trauma. The date fizzled for various reasons, Greenhouse relates, but she does get a great imaginary news headline from the event: “World’s Most Traumatized Woman Dates International Expert on Trauma.”

In an interview, Greenhouse said the new video “really just scratches the surface” of what happened to her. Her recovery, she notes, has been a long, slow process that is still ongoing and has been marked by long periods of isolation and getting used to continued pain and diminished circumstances. For a long time after her injury, she was unable to read and had to entertain herself by listening to music and books on tape, or even just looking out a window; she also practiced meditation and occasionally gorged on old TV shows like “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” a CBS drama from the mid 1990s.

Where does she go from “The Greenhouse Effect: Resurrected”? That, says Greenhouse, “is still up in the air.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

The Greenhouse Effect: Resurrected” will play on NOM on Friday, Nov. 1 at 7 and 10 p.m.