Showing 1 - 10 of 222 annotations in the genre "Memoir"

Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Strange Relation is a memoir of the terminal illness of George Edwards, a composer and professor of music at Columbia University, written by Rachel Hadas, his wife, a well- known poet and herself a professor of English at Rutgers University. Hadas begins with the insidious onset of Edwards's dementia, which is eventually diagnosed as frontotemporal dementia, a slow neurodegenerative disease characterized by a progressive paucity - and then absence - of communication, especially speech. She then continues with their meetings with physicians, especially neurologists, social workers, support groups and eventually nursing home personnel, recording, often in the form of her poems, her thoughts and reactions at the time.

The book consists of short chapters, more or less chronological, with occasional flashbacks to earlier periods in her life or their marriage. In addition to her poems, there are ubiquitous references to literature, many of them familiar, as well as not so familiar illness narratives by patients and relatives, especially those involving dementia and bereavement. George died in 2011, the year of the publication of this book, after 33 years of marriage to Ms. Hadas.




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Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Mallory Smith died of complications following a double-lung transplant for cystic fibrosis (CF). She was twenty-five years old and kept an extensive journal on her computer for 10 years. Salt in My Soul: An Unfinished Life is her memoir, edited by her mother, Diane Shader Smith, from the 2,500 pages of notes, observations and reflections which Mallory Smith wrote. The title refers to the intimate relationship of salt imbalance in cystic fibrosis, and the fact that Mallory felt her most well while swimming in the sea. Diagnosed at age three, she spent much of her days and nights treating the disease with medication, nutrition, chest percussive treatments, breathing treatments, adequate sleep, and aggressive treatment of infections. Unfortunately, while still a child her lungs were colonized with B. cepacia, a resistant bacteria ‘superbug’ which makes transplantation highly risky and hence leads to most centers to not accept CF patients onto their wait lists. Ultimately, University of Pittsburgh does accept Mallory as a transplant candidate, although her health insurance puts up every road block possible to her receiving care. 

Mallory Smith was extraordinarily accomplished – she graduated from Stanford University Phi Beta Kappa, and became an editor and freelance writer. She was also deeply engaged with life and others; she was grateful for her loving, devoted family, and she developed close, fierce friendships within the CF community, among classmates, and eventually, she fell in love. 

She resists being called ‘an inspiration.’ She writes: “I’m not an inspiration. I’m just a person, grounded in compassion, striving to achieve empathy and wanting to make my way with goodness and grace.” (p. 171) She marvels at the miracle of life: “Our existence is the result of stars exploding, solar systems forming. Our Earth having an environment hospitable to life, and then, finally, millions of highly improvable events accumulating over millions of years to bring us, a capable and conscious bag of stardust, to the here and now.” (p 111) Her memoir is a story of living and dying from CF, but it is also an inside look at the brief life of young gifted writer.

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Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Sunita Puri, a palliative care attending physician, educates and illuminates the reader about how conversations about end of life goals can improve quality of life, not just quality of dying, in her memoir, That Good Night: Life and Medicine in the Eleventh Hour. Thirteen chapters are grouped in three parts: Between Two Dark Skies, The Unlearning and Infinity in a Seashell. The arc of the book follows Puri as she is raised by her anesthesiologist mother and engineer father – both immigrants from India – Puri’s decision to enter medical school, her choice of internal medicine residency followed by a palliative care fellowship in northern California and her return to practice in southern California where her parents and brother live. Besides learning about the process of becoming a palliative care physician, the reader also learns of Puri’s family’s deep ties to spirituality and faith, the importance of family and extended family, and her family’s cultural practices.

Puri writes extensively about patients and their families, as well as her mentors and colleagues. She plans and rehearses the difficult conversations she will have with patients in the same way a proceduralist plans and prepares for an intervention. She provides extensive quotes from conversations and analyzes where conversations go awry and how she decides whether to proceed down a planned path or improvise based on the language and body language of her patients and their family members. We visit patients in clinic, in hospital, and at home, and at all stages of Puri’s training and initial practice. Some of the most charged conversations are with colleagues, who, for example, ask for a palliative care consultation but want to limit that conversation to a single focus, such as pain management. We also learn of the differences between palliative care and hospice, and the particularly fraught associations many have with the latter term. She feels insulted when patients or families vent by calling her names such as “Grim Reaper” or “human killer” (p. 232), but understands that such words mean that more education is needed to help people understand what a palliative care physician can do. 

As a mediator of extremely difficult conversations, where emotions such as shame, guilt, fear, helplessness and anger can swirl with love and gratitude, Puri finds the grace to acknowledge that all such emotions are part of the feelings of loss and impending grief, and to beautifully render her reflections on these intimacies: “Yet although I am seeing a patient because I have agreed that they are approaching death, if I do my job well, what I actually encounter is the full force of their lives.” (p. 206) Having met many dying people she notes: “Dying hasn’t bestowed upon them the meaning of life or turned them into embodiments of enlightenment; dying is simply a continuation of living this messy, temporary life, humanly and imperfectly.” (pp 221-2)
 

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Annotated by:
Kohn, Martin

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

About 20 Years ago, Linda Clarke, writer, professional storyteller and bioethics consultant was a neurosurgery patient of a colleague, Michael Cusimano at St. Michael's hospital in Toronto Canada. What was a distant relationship turned into one that was much closer. 10 years ago, Linda and Michael had a dialogue about recounting the story of her surgery and their relationship together. Linda became the "architect" of their project-- and they became co-authors in 2019 of In Two Voices: A Patient and a Neurosurgeon Tell their Story. The result is a lyrical co-memoir-- at times riveting, at other times sobering of their shared experience. What is probed goes much deeper than the facts, exposing the actors involved, their lives outside of their callings, their upbringing, and, most importantly, their differing interpretations of an important event during the surgery that only came to full light during the writing process. 

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The Scar is a powerful, thoughtful, and moving book, part memoir about the author’s illness across some 30 years, part history of depression and its treatment and part essay to evoke cultural and personal values about sickness, suffering, health, and death. Cregan, a gifted stylist herself, draws on literature that deals with human suffering, mortality, and wisdom.  She frankly describes her sorrows and hopes, the death of her baby, her attempts to kill herself, and her survival today with many blessings.   
           
The title refers to a scar on her neck, a result of her effort to cut her throat with a piece of glass so that she would die. This attempt, in a hospital, reflects the depth of her illness and the failure of her caregivers to prevent it. Her book explores the complexity and variety of mental patients and the range of medical responses—some useful, some not—to  treat them. Writing as a survivor, she draws on her journal, hospital records, emails, interviews, and more; she is part journalist, detective, archivist, and forensic pathologist—as if doing an autopsy on the suicide she attempted.
 
Ch. 1
What Happened describes the birth and immediate death of her daughter Anna and her descent into depression and initial hospitalization.

Ch. 2
What Happened Next discusses mental hospitals and her perceptions of being a patient in one. A dramatic paragraph describes her cutting her throat (p. 51).

Ch. 3
How to Save a Life presents electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), from the jarring images of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to her own experience of some 17 treatments; she reports that these helped in recovery.

Ch. 4
The Paradise of Bedlams gives a history of mental hospitals. She is hospitalized three months, “a prisoner,” in her term.

Ch. 5
Where Do the Dead Go? explores the dilemmas of the living as they mourn the deaths of people they love, including approaches from Judaism and Christianity. Mary has nightmares about her lost baby. She discusses Freud, Rilke, T. S. Eliot and others. She buries Anna’s ashes.

Ch. 6
Early Blues discusses modern attempts of science and the pharmaceutical industry to create drugs for mental illnesses, with influences from psychodynamic and biological concepts.

Ch. 7
The Promise of Prozac discusses that famous (notorious?) drug; she takes it on and off while working on her PhD, then other drugs as they became available.

Ch. 8
No Feeling Is Final sums up many themes.  She’s in her late 30s, remarried, and trying to conceive. After IVF, she’s pregnant. Baby Luke is born. She understands that the scar on her neck has an analogue with Odysseus’ scar on his leg: a symbol of survival through hard, even desperate times, for her a “double trauma: the loss of my child, the loss of myself”  (p. 243).  

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Summary:

Thomas De Quincey was a British writer—essayist, mostly—during the first half of the nineteenth century. He is best known for writing about his personal experiences with opium, which appeared in two sequential issues of London Magazine in 1921, and then published as this book in 1822. He would later write a sequel, and later still a more elaborated version of the original.  

De Quincey’s first encounter with opium was in 1804 when he was eighteen years old. Opium was freely available then and was often consumed for recreational purposes. De Quincey was not seeking it for pleasure, at first. Based on a friend’s recommendation, after suffering excruciating facial and head pain for twenty days, he tried opium to relieve the pain. De Quincey acquired opium in the form of an elixir (laudanum) from a local druggist (“unconscious minister of celestial pleasures!”) (p. 43). The book covers the subsequent eighteen years of his opium use, though he would use it until the end of his life at age seventy-four. 

De Quincey refers to opium as the “dread agent of unimaginable pleasure and pain” (p. 42). The book is organized accordingly. After describing his early years of straitened circumstances including near starvation, he divides the book into sections on “the pleasures of opium,” and “the pains of opium.” 
 

De Quincey found the pleasures of opium with his first dose in 1804, pleasures that extended past the pain relief it provided.

But I took it: – and in an hour, oh! Heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of the inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished, was now a trifle in my eyes: – this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me – in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed. (p. 44)

For more of these pleasures, De Quincey drank laudanum over the next ten years at a frequency he describes variously as “occasionally,” “at intervals,” and “seldom…more than once in three weeks: this was usually on a Tuesday or a Saturday night.” He learned that some time was needed between “several acts of indulgence in order to renew the pleasurable sensations,” a property of opioids pharmacologists would later call tolerance (pp. 8-9).

De Quincey eventually became familiar with the pains of opium when the return of severe intestinal pains he suffered in his “boyish days” made it necessary that his laudanum use become “an article of daily diet,” (p. 9) because he “could no longer resist,” and “could not have done otherwise” (p. 59). The amount of opium De Quincey consumed as a result was enough to cause severe reactions when he tried to reduce his dose: “It is a state of unutterable irritation of the stomach… accompanied by intense perspirations, and feeling such as I shall not attempt to describe without more space at my command” (p. 71).

Though relieving pain was the initial reason for his daily diet of laudanum, for most of the next eight years, avoiding withdrawal reactions became the more important motivation for De Quincey’s laudanum intake: “it was solely by the tortures connected with the attempt to abjure it, that it kept its hold” (p. 86). He eventually knew he had to quit when he realized:  “I must die if I continued the opium: I determined, therefore, if that should be required, to die in throwing if off” (p. 87). Throwing off opium was not easy for De Quincey as he experienced “torments of a man passing out of one mode of existence into another,” (p. 88) but he claims he was ultimately successful.

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Annotated by:
Perkins, Sam

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

 In Strange Relation, Rachel Hadas, poet, teacher and classicist, recounts the years just short of a decade of her husband’s descent – retreat is the word she’d prefer – into dementia. Although no definitive diagnosis emerges for George’s “spooky condition,” frontotemporal dementia possibly with Alzheimer’s disease in the frontal lobe seems the most likely. By Hadas’s reckoning, George’s symptoms began when he was in his late fifties—relatively young for dementia. Diagnosing any form of early onset dementia is extremely difficult, especially if memory loss is not among the symptoms, as was the case with George. Hadas noticed the symptoms — his silences and growing remoteness— and ascribed them to her husband’s loss of interest in life and their marriage. She writes, “Slowly and insidiously your partner changes from the person you married into someone else.” 

The book opens in 2004, just before his diagnosis in 2005 at the age of 61. George Edwards was a successful and celebrated composer of symphonies, chamber works and art songs, as well as a professor of music at Columbia University. Through flash-backs, Hadas fills in a portrait of a happy, mutually supportive marriage of two engaged, successful artists, a life that slowly melted away as George’s disease tightened its grip. She ends with George in a long-term care residence in 2009, the year Strange Relation was published and two years before his death in 2011.  

The core of the book, intertwined with the story of George’s dementia, is Hadas’s account of the comfort she sought and gained from reading and writing prose and poetry. “This ordeal has eloquently reminded me of the sustaining power of literature,” she writes. “These gifts of the imagination,” gave her strength. “They are not sufficient, but they are damn well necessary.”

Over seven decades of reading have given Hadas a vast store of literary references to draw on. George is Mr. Dick from David Copperfield, mentally scattered, shuffling his papers; he is King Lear, losing clarity and dignity and consumed with anger and humiliation as he feels his abilities fade. Like Penelope awaiting Ulysses’ return, Hadas sees herself living with George as “neither wife nor widow,” her husband a physical presence but spiritually gone. When she reads James Merrill’s “Days of 1964,” she identifies with the poet who “has gone so long without loving that I hardly knew what I was thinking.” The poem speaks to her as it captures, “The thirst, the loneliness, the habituation to emotional deprivation that marked the way I was living.”

 A recurrent theme that many will relate to is the loneliness she feels caring for someone who, because of his condition, hardly speaks or expresses emotion. Robert Frost’s “Home Burial” reminds her how quickly friends will turn away from death and illness and “make their way back to life.” Sickness, says Flannery O’Connor, is a country “where there’s no company, where no one can follow.” She sees her life reflected in Philip Larkin’s wry poem about a couple’s estrangement, “Talking in Bed,” – the couple’s growing estrangement is “this unique distance from isolation.” Hadas finds the clarity and the company of these works a huge comfort.

There are moments of uplift, too. When her college-age son, Jonathan, and his friends propose to take George on a two-week getaway of very rustic living in Vermont, she reluctantly agrees, certain that disaster or injury will ensue. The reader is as relieved as Hadas is when all goes off without a hitch. 

A recurrent theme of the book is the importance of the language used to describe a disease and its treatment. Metaphors and similes, of course, are staples of medical caregiving – “they help us see freshly,” says Hadas; they help her step outside the moment and understand George, whom she describes as retreating into a “walled garden” or behind a “frosted window”; his disease is a bath in which he’s immersed and can never escape; it is a malignant fluid his brain is stewing in.

Equally, using the wrong metaphors and similes can cause pain and guilt. A neurologist tells Hadas that she’s feeling depressed because Hadas has moved into a “new house” and is still living out of boxes, still in transition. “Make yourself at home,” the doctor advises, “I don’t think you’ve completely moved in yet.” This only makes Hadas feel inadequate and guilty. “Let’s at least find the right kind of house,” she writes. Caring for a person with dementia, as she sees it, is not a house but a prison in which the family caregiver is the voluntary inmate, “responsible for the daily care of a warden who has mysteriously changed into a ward.” 

By the end of the memoir, George has declined to the point that Hadas can no longer care for him and has found him a residence, which raises a new host of concerns. He fails out of the first home and she finds another. She visits George regularly and experiences a new kind of tethered freedom. Her divided self, composed of the Drudge and the Poet, dusts off their apartment to reclaim it from the associations of George’s illness, hoping to rescue her memories of twenty years of happiness before his illness began to take him. “It became my home in a new and different way.”  

Each phase of her journey is accompanied by poems, twenty-nine in all, that Hadas wrote to understand herself, clarify her feelings, cope with the loss of George. Never was Robert Frost’s dictum regarding the ingredient of a successful poem— “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” —more pertinent. Along with her reading, Hadas’s poems lead her to insights that comforted and sometimes surprised her—and will do the same for the reader.   

The book ends with George’s birthday party in 2009 at the long-term care residence where he finally settled. He died shortly after the book was published in 2011.   




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Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Maggie O’Farrell describes the book in a scene involving a casual conversation she has with her mother over tea.

As she lifts the pot to the table, she asks me what I’m working on at the moment, and, as I swallow my water, I tell her I’m trying to write a life, told only through near death experiences. She is silent for a moment, readjusting cosy, milk jug, cup handles. ‘Is it your life?’ she asks. ‘Yes,’ I say, a touch nervously. I have no idea how she’ll feel about this. ‘It’s not…it’s just…snatches of a life. A string of moments. Some chapters will be long. Others might be really short.’ (pp. 142-143)
This conversation is the only place in the book where O’Farrell describes her intentions in writing it. But, what O’Farrell describes to her mother is exactly what the book is, a memoir comprising seventeen “brushes with death,” as she calls these moments. There is no prologue, there are no interludes, there is no coda, just the seventeen stories.

Few people will experience any one of these events, and perhaps only O’Farrell has experienced all of the events she tells us about. She categorizes them based on the anatomy involved in a particular brush with death. For example, some of the chapter names are: “Lungs” (three times), “Neck” (twice), “Abdomen,” “Intestines,” “Cerebellum,” “Circulatory System,” “Whole Body.” The one exception is the chapter, “Daughter.”

Other ways of categorizing the near-death experiences O’Farrell covers could be based on whether they threatened O’Farrell herself or any of her children, whether they were the result of bad luck (e.g., illness) or bad judgment (e.g., near drowning), or whether the threat originated outside the body (e.g., accident) or within the body (e.g., illness, medical procedures). The brushes with death from outside the body involved violence (twice), decapitation (twice), drowning (three times), a plunging commercial airliner, and a knife throwing exhibition. From within her body, close calls involved encephalitis as a child, amoebic dysentery while traveling in a developing country, a Cesarean section gone awry, and a few missed miscarriages (i.e., when fetus dies but no signs or symptoms manifest and surgical procedures become necessary). A daughter was born with severe allergic conditions that caused the child misery pretty much all the time interspersed with episodes of life-threatening reactions. O’Farrell’s son was almost lost in one of her near drownings.

O’Farrell leaves it to the epigraph she placed at the beginning of the book to stitch together how these stories collectively reveal the possibility of the human spirit to get us through the most serious and persistent challenges to our being. For this epigraph, she takes a line from Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar:

I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.

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A Mind Unraveled: A Memoir

Eichenwald, Kurt

Last Updated: Jan-02-2019
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Kurt Eichenwald shares his experiences living with epilepsy in an electrifying narrative. Beginning with staring spells as a child and then later on generalized convulsions with loss of consciousness, he experiences as many as 4 seizures a week between the ages of 18 to 30. After that, the seizures become milder and less frequent. Coincidentally, his wife, father, and older brother are physicians and his mother a nurse.

Eichenwald describes his encounters with multiple neurologists, the best of them being Dr. Naarden. Unfortunately, other health professionals are portrayed as incompetent, careless, lacking empathy, or even unscrupulous. Multiple mishaps with prescribed anticonvulsant medications are chronicled – drug side effects, toxic levels of medicines, and a bout of bone marrow suppression. He suffers broken ribs, cuts and wounds, burns, and is even blanketed by deep snow due to seizures.

Eichenwald acknowledges the toll that epilepsy exacts on roommates, friends, and family. He admits to lots of fear and guilt. At one point, he seriously considers suicide by overdosing. Everyday life is hardly ever ordinary: “Now I was scared every day, checking where I stood for dangers, wondering when consciousness would disappear” (p157). A large section of his account details the discrimination he encounters at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in the early 1980’s. The school dismisses him because of his uncontrolled epilepsy. He successfully fights their decision and returns to graduate. Obtaining and holding a job is complicated by his illness, but Eichenwald becomes a journalist who works for the New York Times.




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Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction — Secondary Category: Visual Arts /

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Devan Stahl’s opening essay in this unusual book explores the tension between her lived experience of being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in her twenties and her physicians’ biomedical descriptions of it. While that tension is a familiar theme in patients’ narratives, Stahl’s approach is fresh and generously collaborative. Stahl, a bioethicist, focuses her brief narrative on her uneasy hours inside MRI machines and with clinicians who read the images. Stahl encouraged her sister, artist Darian Goldin Stahl, to transmute her physicians’ diagnostic tools into printmaker’s works, which bring personal meaning and sisterly solidarity to Devan’s experience. Devan then invited Darian and four humanities scholars to write reflective commentaries on her narrative, Darian’s images, and the commentaries themselves. The result is a richly layered, multi-vocal reflection on what Devan Stahl has accepted as “the dark gift of bodily frailty” (xxvii).

Darian Stahl’s prints were inspired by the drawings of Renaissance anatomist Andreas Vesalius that the sisters admired. Unlike their modern counterparts, the older images placed bodies in humanly built and natural environments that are rich with metaphor and theological implications. Darian’s photographic silkscreened and stone lithographic prints, some of which accompany her essay, imaginatively relocate her sister’s MRI scans in domestic spaces that suggest both Devan’s present state: her spine captured in a glass kitchen jar. And her future: a ghostly figure (actually Darian’s) at the base of the staircase that Devan will someday have trouble climbing. Making art became an act of caregiving.

The scholarly essays affirm that a single diagnosis can set in motion processes of interpretation in the context of family, community, academic discipline, and culture. But in this context, they too are expressions of caring for Devan. Literary and health humanities scholar Therese Jones writes that Stahl’s narrative “testifies to [her] hope of transcending or at least managing the alienation and incoherence of a disrupted life” (49). Literature professor Kirsten Ostherr links the Stahls’ collaborative projects with the patient empowerment movement, where creative expression offers one way to resist “the technomediated patient narrative” (71). Two of Devan Stahl’s theological studies professors contribute the remaining essays. Ellen T. Armour believes that the Stahls’ projects suggest the value of engaging the medical humanities in pastoral practice and vice versa, especially to challenge biomedicine’s claims to mastery and its “disavowal of vulnerability” (89). Jeffrey P. Bishop, who is also a physician, understands a patient’s position within the asymmetric power of medicine. Yet he also resists “the power ontology that animates so much of the West” (102). He offers instead a vision of accepting “the dark gift” of the fragility of the body, which can be both humbling and liberating (105). Viewing one of Darian’s images, he writes, “calls me out of myself” (105).

In Devan Stahl’s final reflection on her colleagues’ commentaries and her sister’s art, she concludes that sharing her experience has revealed both a “power in submission” and her responsibility to other patients (112). Her discovery leads her to a “new image” of herself and acceptance of Bishop’s observation: “Flesh calls the self into question” (115, 103).

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