Here's the announcement for my talk next Wednesday, "Forgetting History: Alzheimer's and Documentary Writing."
Some thinking out loud:
--Headnote, from a late Oppen (1908-1984) poem, when he was suffering Alzheimer's. [Recording of late Oppen wondering if he'd read his poem yet.] Remembering something of his time as a soldier during WWII: I dreamed one night that I was in Northern France in one of the red-brick industrial towns the doors and the windows locked. I knocked on a door and entered and I said to the family I was here during the war, I was
in a house near here tho I cannot find it, it is near, you
can take me there they will know me. I stood in that room and they would not guide me. I was lost and they could not guide me. [This is from the blog version that was revised for DB2]
--My mother's last few years were composed of no tense but the present, yet the story of her Alzheimer's is not exclusively a private one.
--The usual question: "does she remember you?" The question that got me:[DB2: 37] Middle of the page. Movie in the background, my question, "do you remember WWII, Mom?" Her answer, no. But the books about her are haunted by those memories she's lost; the book is, in part, about how surviving members of the Great Generation are forgetting/have forgotten the central events of their lives.
--Much of the background noise of the two dementia books is that of the historical past. My mother was fascinated by history, was a participant in it. [DB1: p. 43] In the first book, when she was still in her own home, the noise was that of the news about the Iraq War (2006). Later, the Alzheimer's home was full of music by Frank Sinatra, show tunes, movies about WWII. The residents' memory boxes, many of them, were full of pictures of young sailors, soldiers, mementos of America's wars from WWII onward.
--The "Elegy" at the project's end, begins mostly with two pages of memories of WWII, based on stories she told. [DB2: 132-33] Her war career in North Africa, Italy, the Battle of the Bulge, Dachau's liberation. Her job with Special Services, which entertained troops. Al Jolson and Marlene Dietrich. The small combat boots & the "Neecy boys" who included Albert Saijo, our friend on the Big Island many decades later.
--But those are memories, and this is a story about forgetting that covers nearly the entirety of two books. The story is more about her forgetting this central moment of her life than my remembering her stories of it.
--"Memorial Day at the Alzheimer's Home":This is a representative slice of the life of the Alzheimer's home. Like several other pieces, it's a found poem or transcript, which I took down as I sat with my mother. I was there in late May, 2010, for Memorial Day. In the common area of her wing of the home, the background music included Billie Holiday's "God bless the child that's got his own" (sad irony), and the fore-background was the television loudly blaring The Devil's Brigade, a 1968 (during another American war, which my parents opposed when they were my age now) film about WWII.
Here's a precis of the film from Rotten Tomatoes, where 73% of the audience liked it. It reads like a lesser Catch-22.
"During the early days of World War II, while the United States was
massing its forces for the war, England hastily plans commando raids
against the German forces to keep them at bay until America's troops
enter the war. As a part of this plan, the Allies create the 1st Special
Service Force to plan and carry out an attack on Norway in order to tie
up the German forces. This commando force of Canadian soldiers and
American GIs is headed by Lt. Col. Robert T. Frederick (William Holden),
paper-pusher given his
first field command. Antagonism immediately erupts between Canadian Maj.
Alan Crown (Cliff Robertson) and American Maj. Cliff Bricker (Vince
Edwards). But Frederick utilizes their mutual dislike as a basis for a
rivalry that turns this rag-tag group of misfits into a disciplined
fighting force. But now that Frederick's men are ready to fight,
Frederick receives word that the Norway mission has been canceled. After
appealing to Washington for another assignment for the commandos, the
brigade is sent on a patrol near the German lines in southern Italy. The
brigade captures an enemy-held village and is then given the seemingly
impossible task of taking Mt. La Difensa."
--[DB2: 34-36] "I remember / My mother was at Anzio." Also play Billie Holiday's "God bless the child." Song written in 1939, recorded in 1941.
After reading this section, explain the references to Streisand, Sinatra, Holiday.
What documentary writing is: not-poem, not-historical narrative, but the pieces offered to the reader to put together. Why not narrative? The problem of Alzheimer's is not so easily solved. Why not poem? Wanting to leave out my subjectivity to a large extent and concentrate on those with Alzheimer's. As I've been thinking about this talk, in this context, I realize that it's a kind of writing that includes its own forgetting. The gaps are there not just so we can make connections between them. In writing Alzheimer's, the gaps are there because there are holes, moments of forgetting, the forgetting of entire histories. So the gaps signify meaning we cannot find. But the overlay of a day in the common room with its historical sounds--music and film--gives us at least the haunting of history. My mother said no to the question, "Do you remember WWII? but the ambient noise was like a communal memory offered up by the television and the sound system.
To be continued--
The Game (8 and 9)
4 months ago