The narrator, Melody Brooks, opens the novel by commenting on how she has always been surrounded by words. She lists a number of unconnected words—including pomegranate, iridescent, sneeze, wish, worry—and notes that such words, each as unique as a snowflake, have piled up deep within her. Melody remembers all the phrases, expressions, jokes, and love songs that she has absorbed over time; she retains the memory of every song her father has sung to her and every phrase her mother has whispered since Melody was two years old. However, the words and memories have always been trapped in her head. Melody reveals that, at her current age of eleven, she has never spoken a single word.
Melody is unable to walk or talk; she can’t feed herself or use the bathroom without assistance. The stiffness in her hands and arms means she can’t hold onto a pencil or spoon, though she has enough dexterity to mash the buttons on a television remote and to move her wheelchair by grabbing knobs attached to the wheels. Melody considers what other people see when they look at her: strapped to a pink wheelchair, Melody has curly brown hair and brown eyes, one of which droops; she is small for her age, and has thin, unused legs; her head wobbles and she occasionally drools; sometimes, her body spasms and flails. With frustration, Melody notes that many people who meet her don’t bother to ask her name, as if her name isn’t important.
Based on her memory and the videos her father recorded when she was a baby, Melody can recall precise details of the day she was brought home from the hospital after her birth. Melody has absorbed every detail of her entire life, including events, textures, and smells. Melody has a synesthetic response to music: when her mother plays classical music, Melody sees the color blue and smells fresh paint; her father prefers jazz, which is brown and tan, and smells of wet dirt. Melody herself likes country music, which calls to mind the scent and color of fresh lemons. Once, Melody heard “Elvira” by the Oak Ridge Boys and tried to point to the radio to signal to her mother that she wanted to hear it again; however, her mother was unable to decode Melody’s jerking and twitching. Melody reflects that her inability to forget anything is good, though often frustrating, since she is unable to express herself. She believes she understands the power of words better than people who have no trouble speaking.
Since her memory and ability to think is so strong, it was frustrating for Melody to learn that she has limited motor functions and poor balance. Recounting episodes from when she was a baby, Melody notes how her parents learned of her limitations when her father brought home a “play-pretty,” a stuffed cat that Melody was unable to hug. Using pillows to prop Melody up, her parents would sit her upright on the green shag rug, only for Melody to topple over. Melody appreciates that, in contrast to her mother’s baby talk, her father always speaks to her as though she is an adult who is capable of understanding his words.
Melody has a photographic memory, which means that she remembers everything she has ever seen or heard on TV. She recounts a time when she was at a department store as a four-year-old. The store stocked a set of toy plastic blocks; she had heard on the radio that the product had just been recalled because the blocks were painted with poisonous lead paint. Melody thrashes in her chair to get her mother’s attention, so that she can alert someone at the store that the toys were dangerous. But her mother mistakes the seizure-like outburst—which Melody calls a “tornado explosion”—to mean that Melody wants the toy. Back at home, her mother calls the doctor and tells him about the incident at the store. In response, he prescribes a sedative; however, Melody had calmed down by then and so her mother doesn’t give her the medication.
Melody discusses her dislike of doctors. Since she can tell that most doctors have been biased against recognizing her intelligence, Melody gives them what they expect by staring blankly at the wall and pretending that their questions are too difficult for her to understand. When Melody was five, her mother took her to a specialist whose job it was to determine if Melody was smart enough to begin elementary school. Dr. Hugely—whose bulging stomach repulses Melody—begins a series of tests to evaluate her intelligence. The first test involves stacking blocks according to size, which Melody’s lack of motor function does not allow her to do. She successfully names the color blue by saying “Buh!”; however, her mouth is unable to make the G sound to pronounce green. The doctor shows four flashcards that depict a tomato, a strawberry, a red balloon, and a banana, and asks that she point to the odd one out. Melody assumes the correct answer is the inedible balloon, but, suspecting it is a trick question, she picks the banana, to which the doctor sighs. Dr. Hugely asks her to identify which of four animals—a cow, a whale, an elephant, and a camel—gives birth to a calf. Melody knows from watching Animal Planet that all four animals technically give birth to calves, and so touches each card.
She can tell he has given up on her, so she puts on her “handicapped face” and waits for the evaluation. Speaking about Melody as though she can’t understand, Dr. Hugely says that Melody is “severely brain-damaged and profoundly retarded.” The diagnosis shocks Melody’s mother, and she insists that her daughter is bright; she can tell because she can see intelligence in Melody’s eyes. The doctor dismisses the mother’s perspective, suggesting that her love for Melody makes her see things that don’t exist. He says she must accept Melody’s condition and move on. This marks the first moment in the novel where Melody’s medical condition—cerebral palsy—is stated.
After he causes Melody’s mother to cry, Dr. Hugely presents three choices: She can keep Melody living at home; she can send Melody away to a special school for children with developmental disabilities; or she can put Melody in a care facility. Melody trembles as he hands her mother the facility brochure. Dr. Hugely suggests that Melody’s parents will be able to get on with their lives once the burden of responsibility is lifted. Melody’s mother says she would never send her daughter to a nursing home, and tells the doctor that, despite his fancy degrees and training, Melody is probably more intelligent than he is; he is lucky that he doesn’t understand what it is like to have to learn how to adapt when nothing works. Melody’s mother rolls her daughter swiftly out of the office and announces that she is going to take Melody straight to Spaulding Street Elementary School to enroll.
The opening chapters of Out of My Mind introduce the reader to the voice of the novel’s protagonist and narrator, eleven-year-old Melody Brooks. By revealing that she has never spoken, Melody sets up the novel’s central conflict: Though Melody is highly intelligent and has a photographic memory, the physical limitations of cerebral palsy means she is unable to communicate her brilliance to the outside world.
Though each word is as unique and beautiful as a snowflake, Melody’s inability to express herself means the words pile up in her mind like snowdrifts—a claustrophobic image that suggests she is buried in language. From the outset, we understand that Melody has a particular insight into the power of language, which is one of the novel’s major themes.
When Melody imagines what she must look like to the outside world, she acknowledges how her appearance sets her apart from able-bodied people, introducing the theme of social isolation. She doesn’t think there is anything cute about a pink wheelchair—a statement that establishes Melody’s sharp attitude and her dislike of condescension. The fact that people often don’t ask her name when they meet her introduces the concept of ableism as another major conflict; the implicit discrimination in favor of able-bodied people that Melody experiences will be a constant source of tension throughout the novel.
The memories Melody recalls in the opening chapters introduce the motifs of her photographic memory and musical synesthesia. Melody’s inability to tell her mother that she likes the song “Elvira” speaks to the personal frustration of Melody’s physical limitations. However, Melody’s inability to communicate also makes it harder for her to contribute to social life. In a subsequent scene, Melody’s mother fails to understand that her daughter is trying to bring her attention to the dangerous, lead-painted toy blocks that are still on the shelves after having been recalled. The failure to attract her mother’s attention with a “tornado explosion” of shrieks and spasms foreshadows Melody’s eventual failure to tell her mother that Penny has escaped from the house.
The scene in Dr. Hugely’s office further develops Melody’s struggles against able-bodied prejudice. The supposed specialist’s implicit bias against Melody’s physical appearance leads him to administer flawed tests rather than adapting the evaluations to suit her abilities. The options Dr. Hugely presents to Melody’s mother allows the reader to imagine alternate narratives in which a person with Melody’s intelligence could be treated as though she is mentally impaired and put in a care facility as a result. Melody’s mother’s faith in her daughter’s intelligence and the decision to enroll her in school marks the beginning of the chain of events that lead Melody to join the Whiz Kids quiz team.