SOUTH BERWICK — There are 18 months of Jason Crigler’s life that he cannot remember. In some ways, that’s a good thing.

At the age of 34, he suffered a near-fatal brain hemorrhage while playing guitar at a New York City nightclub. He doesn’t remember doctors telling his family he might die or that he might never walk again. He also doesn’t remember the birth of his daughter, Ellie, several months after he was stricken.

He does remember years of slow recovery, grueling physical therapy that yielded little or no results. He remembers thinking a lot about his condition. Some days all he could do was think.

“The only way to get out of something like that is to have really strong motivators. The desire I had to be in my daughter’s life was so huge, I had to cancel out the muck of the daily toil I needed to do, to function again,” the 46-year-old said, sitting in the backyard of his South Berwick home. “And music was huge. I couldn’t accept I wouldn’t play again. I can remember early on thinking, ‘I’ve got to be able to do this again.’ ”

It’s been 12 years since Crigler’s brain hemorrhage. Motivated by family and music, he’s recovered more fully than doctors expected. He’s regained his speech. He writes, plays and teaches music. He walks easily, drives a car and spends lots of time with Ellie, now 11. He also travels the country talking about his recovery.

He’ll give a talk Aug. 25 at Maine Medical Center’s Dana Health Center Auditorium in Portland.


He’s been speaking to brain injury support groups, and other groups, since about 2009. He and his sister, Marjorie Crigler, created a presentation called “Defying the Odds,” which includes Crigler playing guitar. Crigler and his family also helped produce a 2008 documentary film called “Life.Support.Music.” It includes footage of Crigler in the very early days after his injury and has been shown on PBS. Marjorie Crigler also wrote a book, “Get Me Through Tomorrow: A Sister’s Memoir of Brain Injury and Revival.”

Crigler says he’s seen how his story can inspire families and give them hope. And that’s motivation to keep on telling it.

Crigler grew up in New York City, where his mother was a teacher and cello player and his father was musical director at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut. He spent summers at the opera house, seeing revivals of old musicals like “Funny Face” and “Little Johnny Jones,” and being mesmerized.

He spent the school year in Manhattan and began exploring music on his own. His first major guitar influence was Eric Clapton. He remembers being captivated by a 1986 Clapton album called “August.” He delved into Clapton, which led him to blues, and he eventually explored jazz as well.

He played music a lot as a student at Connecticut College, but didn’t major in music. After college he played in New York City clubs for years, trying to find his sound. By his early 30s he found it, and he was in demand. He performed on his own around the city, but also played and toured with well-known musicians, including Teddy Thompson, Linda Thompson, John Cale of the Velvet Underground and Marshall Crenshaw.

He met his wife, Monica, at a gig. She is also a musician, and after they met she called him to ask for a guitar lesson.


“I found out later that was just an excuse for us to hang out,” Crigler said.

The couple had been married about three years when, on Aug. 4, 2004, Crigler woke up and got ready for a performance backing up singer Sandy Bell at a small club in Manhattan. He remembers going to get a bite to eat before the show at Tiny’s Giant Sandwich Shop. He remembers Monica, two months pregnant, sitting in the audience. He remembers the first song going well.

At some point during the second song, everything went wrong. Suddenly, the rock band on stage with him sounded very far away, he said. When he looked into the audience, he saw colors floating around.

“It would have been really cool if it wasn’t so utterly, bone-chillingly terrifying, because I just didn’t know what was going on,” Crigler said.

While the song was still playing, Crigler took off his guitar and left the stage to find his wife. She took him outside, where he lay down on a sidewalk until an ambulance came. The ambulance would be the last thing he’d remember for 18 months.

The band, not knowing what happened, kept playing. Monica, who had already had two miscarriages, told family members the news. Crigler had suffered a brain arteriovenous malformation, a tangle of abnormal blood vessels connecting arteries and veins in the brain. It caused bleeding in Crigler’s brain, and left him mostly immobile. Some people are born with the malformations while others develop them later in life. The cause is unknown.


Doctors told Crigler’s family he might die, but he was awake and talking in a few days. Then came complications and a coma that lasted many weeks.

“Doctors said, that first night, it didn’t look good, the bleeding was so severe. And if I lived, I wouldn’t be the same guy. Luckily I wasn’t around to hear that,” Crigler said.

His family had no easy way of communicating with Crigler, except for music.

“If we put the wrong music on, his blood pressure would go up. If we put on something we knew he loved, like the Beatles or Eric Clapton or Indian music, we could tell by his blood pressure he was relaxed,” said Monica Crigler.

John Mettam, a friend and fellow musician who was on stage with Crigler the night of his brain hemorrhage, brought a theremin to Crigler’s bedside. Invented in the 1920s, a theremin is an electronic instrument played without physical contact. Just a slight wave of the hand can get the instrument to produce a sound. The most notable theremin performance is on the Beach Boys’ song “Good Vibrations.”

“He likes weird sounds anyway, and as a musician, I knew he’d want to make music,” said Mettam. “All he had to do was move his hand, just a little, and he could make a sound.”


In the documentary on Crigler, Monica is shown saying she feared the stress of his health crisis could make her lose the baby. When she didn’t, she had Ellie’s birth videotaped so Jason could watch it later on. And she brought Ellie to the hospital every day to see Jason.


Monica also advocated hard for Jason, going through “bureaucratic hell” to apply for Medicaid when Jason’s health insurance cap was maxed out. By making lots of phone calls and finding the right people, she got her husband admitted to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, where his recovery continued. For three to four years, recovery was “my full-time job,” he said.

His hands were like claws, his fingers tense and unable to open, when he started doing exercises. He remembers doing exercises for a month at a time with his fingers, and noticing no improvement. Then a therapist would tell him he had actually improved the range of motion on a finger by one degree. That was something.

While struggling to regain motion, he also had surgeries on his eyes to improve the double vision the brain hemorrhage left him with. He was fed by a tube for so long his teeth had shifted in his head, so he required oral surgery and braces. Family members were with him always. His sister quit her job to help.

As soon as he could, Crigler was trying to play music. In 2006, while still working hard on recovery, he started sitting in with musician friends who would invite him to play a song or two. It was difficult and painful, but he kept doing it.


It took a while, but he finally began to feel comfortable performing, and family and friends saw a big change.

“It gave him confidence and satisfaction and a sense of purpose, and we couldn’t do that for him,” said his sister.

Jason Crigler sits with his daughter, Ellie, 11, at home in South Berwick. (Photo by Jill Brady/Staff Photographer)

Jason Crigler sits with his daughter, Ellie, 11, at home in South Berwick.  Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Crigler said an important part of his recovery was realizing that he had missed nearly a year of his daughter’s life. It felt crushing at first.

“That was a milestone for me, it was incredibly sad and depressing at first, but it was the first time I had felt any emotion in a long time,” Crigler said.


Crigler and his family moved to the Boston area from New York while he was in Spaulding, and they ended up in South Berwick largely because of Monica’s job as a graphic designer with a publishing company in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Crigler gives private lessons from his home studio and teaches some classes at Berwick Academy and in Portsmouth and Durham.

He and Monica still have a band together, started nearly 20 years ago, called Goats in Trees. Monica says that as a musician, her husband seems to have “a more open connection” between his head and his hands, and that he makes music from “an inner place.”

Crigler’s remarkable recovery taught him and his family a lot about power, the power of music, of love and of the human spirit to endure more than most of us think possible.

“I’m constantly amazed at the number of positive things that have come out of this. I tell people a lot of it is how you choose to deal with something,” Crigler said. “This awful thing happened, it derailed my life, but instead of giving in to depressed anger, we made choices to use this awful thing in a positive way.”

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