Monday, January 16, 2012

From Oedipus to Alzheimer's: the New Whodunnit: Alice LaPlante's _Turn of Mind_

The last dozen years of my life have been framed and informed by two narratives, those of adoption and Alzheimer's.  We adopted our son in 2000, our daughter in 2004.  By 2006, my mother's Alzheimer's had progressed (as it were) to the stage where she could not stay in her house, and was moved to a care home.  That passively voiced verb form, "was moved," was enabled by a third adoption; in early 2006 I went to court to become my mother's guardian so that I could oblige her to receive care.  I became my mother's mother, made her decisions, signed her checks, held onto her memories as best I could for reasons medical, familial, artistic.  Not too long ago, I found a loose page of my mother's check register from August, 2006; I had blogged on it back then.  The check is public and personal; her register was one of her primary ways of organizing the world.  That she wrote "for food!" next to a check she'd written to me (getting my name wrong as she did it) testifies to her disbelief that ordinary staples could ever cost so much.  The checkbook rendered autobiography, its register poem.

Early in this twelve year span I drafted an essay, since discarded, in which I pointed out that Oedipus-- best known as the detective-king who discovers that he was the bad guy whose victim was his biological father--had been adopted.  The Oedipus narrative, which permeates our western cultural references, depends on our ignoring his adoption and focusing almost exclusively on his genetic relation.  That family relations are hidden even from the family members makes the story more powerful, of course.  But that burst secret depends on maintaining the adoption's secrets.  Yes, he was left on a hill as a baby, and yes, someone found him, and yes he grew up in Corinth.  The secret was kept from him, and the significance of his upbringing kept secret from the reader.  The second secret does not bother us, unless perhaps we are literary critics who are also adoptive mothers.  That history is elided for the history that depends on blood genealogy.  (I have found this focus typical in mainstream American culture, despite all conscious emphasis on the individual or hockum about the wonders of adoption.) "Oedipus" became a plot device that generated many of western literature's best stories; this is now what is called "adoption literature," and includes novels by George Eliot and Charles Dickens, plays by Edward Albee, a host of memoirs, a ton of movies (Harry Potter, anyone?), and many a facebook status line.

If adoption narratives depend on a search for the self in relation to a missing blood parent, then Alzheimer's narratives depend on a search for the self within a decaying brain.  (The brain is our birth parent, the mind our adopted one, perhaps.)  These are narratives folded in on themselves, especially when the narrator suffers the disease.  My recent post on Walter Mosley's The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey argued that Mosley uses Grey's search for his own past to unravel a larger history.  But Mosley's book depends on a miraculous, if deadly, cure for forgetting, one that takes the novel out of the poetry of Alzheimer's and into the dream-realism of remembered stories, then back into dream-forgetting.  There is also an adoption in the book, but not one that carries secrets with it.  Turn of Mind, by Alice LaPlante, does not allow its author or reader that luxury of artificial memory.  Instead, this book, also a literary detective novel, uses Alzheimer's to get at family relationships (which include a case of hidden parentage), and drives a murder mystery in which the demented narrator may or may not have been the perpetrator.  But I'm more interested, in both cases, not in whodunnit, but in how the author writes Alzheimer's.

If the genre of discovery, of self-knowledge, is prose narrative, then the genre of Alzheimer's is prose poetry.  This is a book written in short detached paragraphs; it's as close to new sentence writing as a mainstream novel is going to get.  So the notion of "plot" is in some ways severely reduced.  Consider this paragraph, by Alice LaPlante in the voice of her demented narrator, a retired hand surgeon, Dr. Jennifer White:

When I have a clear day, when the walls of my world expand so that I can see a little ahead and a little behind me, I plot.  I am not good at it.  When watching the heist movies that James [her late husband] loves, I am impressed by the trickery the writers think up.  My plots are simple: Walk to the door.  Wait until no one is looking.  Open the door.  Leave.  Go home.  Bar the front entrance against all comers. (187)

The plot involves guarding oneself from other's plots, but it also--and this is where I'm drawn in--involves nothing so complicated as walking, opening, leaving, going, and barring.  In a straight detective novel, verbs work at the service of nouns and pronouns.  "She did it," has a subject, a verb, and an object (the done thing).  In this version of the detective novel, verbs are themselves difficult, must be plotted.  It's as if you're an American driver who has arrived at a round-about in a left-driving country; you need to think ever so carefully simply to turn your steering wheel.  During a walking meditation once on the Big Island, I watched a man in our group who had had a recent stroke.  His left leg swung forward with great difficulty; the rhythm of his walk differed from ours.  It was the ordinary, the difficult, witnessed as beauty.

LaPlante's book contains many of the plots of Alzheimer's: there is the take-the-driver's-license-away from mother plot--and her anger at that theft; there is the talk-about-mother-in-front-of-her plot, in which the talkers do not know, or especially care, if she understands what they say; there is the child-needs-money-from-mother plot; there is the sell-the-house plot; there is the "this-is-your-home-now" plot.  That these are not the centerpieces of the novel's larger plot says a lot about the anxieties of fiction, in which plots need to do their plotly things: they need crisis, climax, denouement, and not in the smaller realm (that of Alzheimer's) but in the realm where plots tie together, novels come to a clean end, and we leave happy that we paid our money to be entertained, but not damaged by our reading.

Dr. Jennifer White is an unreliable narrator, to put it mildly.  That's what makes her such a good one.  But her Alzheimer's is also, necessarily, a fiction within the fiction.  To write from inside Alzheimer's presents the writer--Mosley, LaPlante--with a challenge that leads to wonderful, poetic, writing.  It generates plots very like those in adoption fiction: something is missing, it's part of the central character's story, which she needs to figure out in order to find herself, be whole.  Mosley follows that narrative arc more reliably, as Ptolemy Grey--at least for a brief moment--recovers himself from the decay.  LaPlante lets it go to some extent, as Dr. White never does figure out the answer on her own.  But she relies on several crutches to make the Alzheimer's narrative work as a story, not as a series of discrete, confusing moments.  One of these is writing.  She keeps a journal, and her family and friends also write in this journal.  So, even when she cannot read what they have written, we can.  I'm reminded of the pathos in caregiving memoirs, like that of Rachel Hadas, when the carer finds writing by the Alzheimer's patient, from a point in the disease when there was still awareness of decay, when decay was a verb and not just a noun.

LaPlante's imagined Alzheimer's mind is confused, yes, especially about linear and historical time.  But her narrator can still write in sentences that "make sense," can still convey her feelings to the reader.  As a writer, the narrator is less ill than as a character.  LaPlante finesses this problem by using the "you" when Dr. White narrates her movements late in the book.  Take the scene when Dr. White escapes her Alzheimer's ward:

You realize that you are impeding the flow of traffic.  People are politely navigating around you, but you are inconveniencing them.  One man bumps your elbow as he passes and stops briefly to apologize.  You nod and say, not at all, and begin moving again.  (238)

The longer scene that ensues, when Dr. White eats at an Italian restaurant, her neighbors and waiter deeply suspecting her state, Dr. White suspecting that they suspect, is an amazing piece of writing.  One that is only possible inside a fiction.  A brief moment possible outside a fiction comes when Dr. White first enters the care facility:

The woman with no neck is screaming again.  A distant buzzer and then the muffled sound of soft-soled shoes on thick carpet hurrying past my door.

Other noises emerge from other rooms on the floor.  The calls of incarcerated animals when one of their own is distressed.  Some recognizable words like help and come here but mostly cries that swell and converge.  (143)

I'm not obsessed with the actual truth, per se, though I can attest that those last passages record what an Alzheimer's home sounds like during the late afternoon period of sun-downing.  And Alzheimer's is--at least early on--a literary disease.  My practice of transcribing voices, and the much more ambitious practice of the Trebus Project in the UK of recording stories told by Alzheimer's patients, proves to me that the confusions of early to middle Alzheimer's result in a genre at once poetic and narrative.  Just as depression is better literature than schizophrenia, however, early Alzheimer's makes for a better story than late.  The silences of late Alzheimer's take us from Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein to John Cage.  I'm not at all sure you could write a novel from that place, unless you're B.S. Johnson, perhaps.  What Mosley and LaPlante offer are Alzheimer's experiments that flirt with, but do not join, the avant-garde of late Alzheimer's.

Late in Turn of Mind, Dr. White remembers a conversation she'd had decades earlier with her best friend, Amanda, the woman who is now dead and whose fingers have been amputated in a last act of desecration.  This conversation turned on the question of adoption.  At 35, Dr. White is rather unhappily pregnant with a child that her husband wants more than she does.  (She will have an unexpected child when she's over 40, as well.)  Amanda tells her that she and her husband are "still trying."  Dr. White's response, which she immediately regrets, goes as follows: "What about adopting, you asked, then wished you could take back your words.  Of course she must have considered it.  How facile"  (262).

Amanda's response: "No. I need more control than that."

The two women then debate what "control" means in relation to children.  When do they need to become "yours" for you to feel you have control?  Dr. White asserts that being in the delivery room when the adopted baby is born might be enough.  "That would take care of the nurture part," Amanda responds.  "But what about the nature?  That would be unknown." (263)

Amanda eventually turns the conversation back on her friend, asking why she has so resisted having children.  Turns out that Dr. White distrusts nature as much as Amanda yearns toward it.  "Children do love the most horrible, depraved people.  They attach to warm bodies.  Familiar faces.  Sources of food.  To be valued for such base requirements doesn't interest me" (265).

Why this conversation near the end of a novel about Alzheimer's?  Aside from plot considerations, namely that Dr. White's daughter's paternity is in question and Amanda becomes something of a surrogate parent to her, Alzheimer's, like adoption, forces the big questions.  Who am I, and why am I so?  What is my history, and how do I find it?  Even, along with Oedipus, did I do it?  But nature is not always to be trusted.  We don't always resemble or love those to whom we are biologically tied.  Our natural minds sometimes decay.  We may begin not knowing our biological identities; we may also end not knowing ourselves because biology fails us, or we it.  If we are writers, we recognize these tropes as plot lines (even when the lines more resemble circles, erased geometries).  If we are writers, we have control over those plot-lines in our fictions.  That's why daily life has come to fascinate me more than fictions, because we cannot control, only record, them.  But sometimes--as in these novels by Mosley and LaPlante--fictions move us back into our ordinary lives in ways that matter.


A year ago I spent nearly a week with my mother.  It was our last visit before the last visit in June, when she was dying, died.  The blog posts of January, 2011 can be found in this thread, moving from the aftermath of that visit back into it.  I miss her and the residents and caregivers of her home more than I can say.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

TELL MRS MILL HER HUSBAND IS STILL DEAD: Oral histories from the dementia ward

The Alzheimer's Foundation of America recently sent me a card that reads, "A Season to Cherish Memories."

All ironies aside, many of my memories now do have to do with Alzheimer's.  This time last year I visited my mother for the next to last time, the time before the time she was dying and then passed.  (That last verb, which used to strike me as tired euphemism, now seems right; she passed on, she passed into, she passed away from me, from us, she passed out of time.)  My blog posts on that visit can be found on this archive page, starting (or ending on the blog) from 1/11/11.  "Ending from" is not a good phrase, except in blogging, so I'll leave it be.

During this past sabbatical year, when I was not with my mother, or blogging about dementia, I was traveling to talk about my blogging about dementia.  I developed a talk on how best to write Alzheimer's, which argued by example that experimental writing worked better than realist narrative, that giving voice to the Alzheimer's sufferer was preferable to hearing the voice of the caregiver or spouse.  It was a polemical piece, not nearly as good as the actual writing, I suspected, but sometimes such writing requires an introduction, a foreshadowing. As polemic it both explained and sometimes off-put.  But now I think I've found the positive critique--not the "don't write like this, but yes, do work like this . . . " in the form of a UK project, launched in 2003, called The Trebus Project, founded and run by David Clegg.

Clegg is an artist who gave up museums and galleries for the space of hospitals, of nursing and care homes.  He gave up the artist's eye/I for that of the editorial you.  He listens, accumulates stories, then edits them into short pieces, many of which are then acted out for radio programs.  You can find the project website here; they also have a Facebook page you can "like" for updates.  The volume of stories I have in hand is called Tell Mrs Mill Her Husband is Still Dead, available on the Trebus Project website, which jolted me back to the moment I recorded in Dementia Blog from the August 19, 2006 entry.  My mother was then spending much of her time looking for her mother and brother, both dead (I think) since the 1960s: "My mother has not said a word about her father; he is still dead."

Dementia is not just a disease, it is a temporal state, one in which the dead are still living, the speaker still inhabits an earlier moment in history, and time is not linear but circular.  History gives way to poetry, although they cannot ever be divorced.  Like my mother in her later years, the speakers in Tell Mrs Mill, are still living the Second World War.  Because most of them are English, some German, they remember the Battle of Britain from the perspective of children or young adults witnessing bombs, bodies, V2 rockets.  It is, as Mabel says, "A rather violent sort of poetry," this memory that "the bombing" (for example) "sounded worse at night," or that as Mrs. Mill herself puts it:

I remember the bombing . . . and taking cover . . . being careful not to show any light from the windows . . .  you could hear the planes coming . . . they seemed faster than the English planes . . . we were lucky we had an Anderson Shelter . . . but I was scared stiff . . . the bombing was very close to where I was living in Nunhill Road (159).

And there's Nelson, who saw through the reports that an English plane had crashed on its way home, "but it was too much damage."  He and his friends knew this was a V2 rocket.  Nelson later drove a lorry that carried crisps, many of which he seems to have eaten on the sly: "get your fingernail under the edge of the tin lid and you'd split the seal.  Have some of the crisps out and seal it back up again" (61).  Even Sam, whose Alzheimer's is deeper than most of the others, remembers something of the War ("Do you remember a nice-looking woman called Eva Braun?" he asks), though a few sentences later he writes, "I was 18 when I came to England [from St. Lucia, home to Derek Walcott].  I can't remember the history of me" (175).

Among the stories Clegg has gathered in his book, mainly soliloquies punctuated by occasional questions or prompts, are those by a gay man who is still reticent to say so, by some people who grew up so poor that (in Hilda's case) she had to have all her baby teeth pulled because her diet was so poor, and by many who were neglected and/or abused.  There are stories of how they met their partners, along with some fearful, quizzical assertions that they don't remember them.  Lots of dance halls, movie theaters.  For the most part, the details are relentlessly ordinary, and hardly a soul other than Isabella utters a polemic against dementia care: "Dementia care in this country doesn't exist . . . The problem is that . . . a great many people who are supposed to be carers . . . have contempt . . . for the loss of memory . . .and . . . the mental problems that that leads to . . . and take advantage of it.  They behave in the most diabolical way and think they can get away with it . . . because . . . no one would believe the poor woman with dementia" (112).

Clegg believes her.  He writes bluntly in the introduction, "Telling Stories": "Some people have questioned the honesty of the narrators and the historical accuracy of their stories, as if a lack of authenticity somehow distinguishes them from our own.  Dementia or not, we are all unreliable narrators; we all consciously and unconsciously change our stories all the time and we all lie" (12).  He also pointedly dismisses the "rewriting and sanitising [of] life stories without consent as a further form of protection and risks leaving people like Elsie Mill to struggle with darker thoughts and feelings in unsupported isolation" (13). 

As a literary critic, I love those moments when the tellers of the stories comment on their own telling, and on the book that Clegg has told them he's compiling.  "This book to help people remember," notes Fia, who finishes her thought by saying, "The future is something I try to forget" (17).  Mabel calls it a test, this "trying to remember a memory of a memory" (29).  Leonard is one of the few whose language is itself affected/afflicted by the illness (these are mainly early to middle Alzheimer's patients, the ones who still speak in sentences with beginnings and ends).  He tells the listener that he's "got this euthanasia in the back of my head . . . it doesn't hurt a bit . . . and don't worry it isn't contagious . . . but . . . it just means that by the time I finish what I'm saying I'll have forgotten what price I offered you" (47).  Like the woman who thinks of everyone arounde her as passenger on a train, Leonard, who owned an art gallery, thinks of his interlocutors as potential customers.  The nouns and verbs of our working lives survive into the afterlife of metaphor.  And Mrs Mill, in some ways the book's fulcrum, its heroine, begins her speaking by saying, "I'm so pleased to do this . . . I never thought I was popular enough to write a biography.  I was born in Shropshire" (157).  Clearly, she remembers the autobiographical form, beginning as she does with her own birth. 

The cd that came with the book contains the voices of actors performing some of the monologues.  What the cd offers us beyond the book's words are the regional accents that inhabit Alzheimer's homes; in my mother's, there were New England accents, Spanish accent, New York Jewish accents, and then there were those who had gone back to their original language, like Dutch.  The sounds of the voices are living a time that no longer much exists (at least extrapolating them to the American context, as I am).  There are upper class accents, northern English accents, West Indian accent, lower class accents.  Alzheimer's patients may forget vast swatches of their own histories, but they do not forget their vowels.

One of my favorite voices is that of Morris, a Yorkshireman, who starts talking as a balloon is being thrown around the room--typical recreation for the elders.  He grew up working in a mill, as his mother had done.  Perhaps typical of working class boys, he turned to sports.  He was also reacting to his mother's constant illness.  His first sight of a cricket pitch is from a doctor's office where his mother has one.  "I used to watch the cricket," he reports, "while she was in the doctor's" (115).  His father was ok, but always too tired.  Morris's monologue turns back and back again to his prowess at athletics.  "What the hell did I do?" he asks.  "I was always playing football with the school . . . I got into cricket and I was good . . .and I was captain of football at school and cricket . . .kids idolised me at Brighouse and further than that . . . I was very good . . . really good" (115).  Even as he falls in love with Betty, married to another man, he remembers his sports accomplishments, but then also his gambling problem, which derailed his relationship with her.  It was an October to December affair, he remembers. He played snooker, he says, so well that he "could really have been someone" (117).  He was supposed to take her to the station (her father was also a gambler) but he did not.  "I always won . . .from then I was always a gambler . . . I couldn't stop" (117).

Maybe it's the transparency of a story like this one that makes it so moving; what Morris has lost is his cover, and our covers almost always begin from words.  As Clegg notes at the beginning, we all lie.  These voices seem to lie less because they cannot lie low.  They say what they think, they say what they remember, and they admit to their actless act of forgetting.  What could be more honest than John's admission of his lost memory: "All I remember about my grandfather isn't really a memory at all . . . all I've got is . . . not an image . . . I remember somebody in the next room . . . someone in the bed . . . and my mother saying it was my grandfather . . . he had gone out or gone in . . . Shakespeare was much more specific with his ghosts" (85). 

If they invent, re-imagine, it's not to impress the listener, but because "confusion" takes our contrivances away.  That strikes me as one of the great beauties of this book, its honesty.  The honesty is that of the speakers, but also David Clegg's.  The stories are funny, and sad, and mixed up, but they are true, even if they are not--as Clegg puts it in the introduction--"authentic," by which one might mean "accurate."  Accuracy be damned.  These are the truth.

Friday, January 6, 2012

New Year's natterings

At the Nissan service center yesterday:

--Punahou grad, living in the East Village, talking to her dad and a friend they've run into.  Her friends who didn't succeed in making new friends "all ended up back at UH."

--All the employees are listed on the wall, by name and photograph.  One of them is Cambodian.  I've asked to meet him before, but he wasn't at work that day.  This time someone fetches him from the service bay.  I tell him my son is from Cambodia, ask if he knows Hongly.  He says yes, and how old is your son.  I say 12 and gesture above my head to show how tall my son's become.  He's busy, works for Nissan and on a farm.  Smiles, shakes my hand.  The guy behind the computer smiles at me.  I say, "ask him his story; they all have incredible stories."  "They do?"

--Pale little boy with young mother, eating breakfast off a paper platter.  Uses both hands.  Says "mama" twice in every blurred sentence.  He's two years old, still wears diapers.  He likes me, keeps making eye contact.  I start talking to him.  He comes closer.  He hugs me.  His mother says he had to be taught affection because he was so inward.  Heart surgery as a baby.  The boy with the beautiful Biblical name raised his green shirt and showed me a scar running from top to bottom of his chest and belly.  He came and hugged me again.  And again.  And again.

--Waiting for my daughter at soccer, talking to another mom about bad calls in her daughter's last game.  The defender went into the net, not the ball.  A dad sits next to me on the bench; he's military, talks to me sometimes about economics, what to do when he retires.  Once he said war is really awful.  Once the girls sent him off to "the Middle East."  He came back a year ago, was it?  "Nice to be back," he says, but he's not been away this time.  "Life, Susan, is very difficult," he says, turning to me.  Something about aches and pains in middle age, except it isn't.  He's been praying.  I suggest meditation, letting all those thoughts go.  He finds his daughter, thanks me for talking, asks for a hug.  I give him one, tell him to take care of himself.  Don't sleep much.  Find him on-line, with a daughter whose name is his daughter's but with a different wife.  It's him, it has to be him.  But then it isn't.  Same face, same daughter's name, same profession, different guy.  That man's wife is looking for a gravesite, and she has three kids.  The other two don't have his kids' names.  Red herring.  He needs more than meditation.  I need to tell him more, suggest "help."  He was in the wars.  His ghosts are on the bench with us.  His more specific than mine, but.


My third sabbatical is now over.  Next week I start teaching: English 411, Poetry Workshop, and English 713 (as) Documentary Poetry.  Next week the institution has me again in its clutches.  If sabbaticals are an aide to memory, then the first contains that of meeting my husband, the second the adoption of our daughter, and the third the death of my mother. The personal markers click outward to baseball memories (2004, 2011 were big years for the Cardinals) and national ones (2004's sad election).  The space between #1 and #2 included our son's adoption, his coming into language and gentleness; the space between #2 and #3 was that of my mother's dementia, as well as our daughter's coming into her second language, and her love of soccer.  So many rulers.  Only when they melt do they add up.