Showing 41 - 50 of 209 annotations in the genre "Memoir"

Townie

Dubus III, Andre

Last Updated: Oct-13-2011
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This memoir spins out in detail the despair and violence that emerges from a childhood of poverty and parental absence. When Dubus was preadolescent, his writer father of the same name (see Andre Dubus), took up with a student of his, and the parents divorced. Andre's mother became a social worker, working full-time with no support system, exhausted. Although Andre's father lived nearby and paid child support, it was never enough to keep the four children and their mother out of poverty. They moved frequently, always to the rough sections of depressed Massachusetts towns on or near the Merrimack River. The memoir describes vividly the smells of the polluted river; garbage strewn lawns; smoky, raucous bars; afternoons and evenings spent aimlessly watching television and, in adolescence, neighborhood kids and punks doing drugs and sex in Andre's home - before his mother arrived back from work each evening  .

At school, in bars, and around the neighborhood, kids and adults beat each other up - violence was a constant. Andre was slight and fearful but also drawn to watch the frequent fights. He avoided direct involvement when he could, was beaten up when he couldn't, and loathed himself in either case. He felt like a non-person: "There was the non-feeling that I had no body, that I had no name, no past and no future, that I simply was not. I was not here" (78). Finally, after being unable to help his brother during a fight, Andre resolved to build himself up physically--lifting barbells, bench pressing, and eventually taking boxing lessons.

Now when there was the threat of a fight, he plunged in quickly, inflicting damage. He could defend himself and those he cared about. But always there was the need for vigilance and the need - frequently actualized - to explode in rage. Later, he came to realize that being quick to jump into fights was a way "to get out what was inside him. Like pus from a wound, it was how [I] expressed what had to be expressed" (191). Gradually Andre came to think there might be other ways "to express a wound."

In the second part of the memoir, Dubus writes of how that other way evolved into creative writing. Training for physical prowess had imposed some discipline in his life, which meant being able to concentrate in school, do homework, and read. There were stints in and out of college (eventually he graduated from the University of Texas in Austin), making ends meet as a gas station attendant, construction worker, fast food manager, bartender, and later-- halfway house counselor. At the local Massachusetts college he attended for a while, he overheard himself being called a "townie." He navigated at the interface of the old neighborhood where he still lived and the life of the more privileged. He became more self-aware, more interior, and at the same time, more interested in the larger world. Threaded throughout this period is a developing relationship with his father, whose writing he admired and whose approval he craved.

In spite of the author's ambivalence toward his father - "where were you when I needed you?" (333)--one probably cannot overestimate the role that the senior Dubus played as a writer model for his son. Dubus read and admired his father's stories. He saw the discipline required to write, even though Dubus senior's weekends were often spent unwinding in bars (sometimes with the younger Dubus). Andre met his father's academic colleagues, met other writers, met writers who had stable relationships with a spouse.

He even learned that a writer can be a sports fan (Boston Red Sox), and avid sports participant (jogger). One of the most moving chapters in the book describes the first baseball game Dubus ever attended or watched - at age 13 - (with two tickets from his father), to see the Red Sox play the Yankees in Boston. Dubus went with a friend who explained the game to him as it unfolded. Dubus was stunned: "Every time one of them walked up to home plate with his bat, hundreds of men and boys would yell insults at him I couldn't quite make out, just the tone, which I knew well, but it wasn't directed at me or anyone I would have to try to protect, and I felt relieved of everything, part of something far larger than I was, just one of thousands and thousands of people united in wanting the same thing, for those men from our team to beat the men from the other team, and how strange that they did this by playing, that one beat the other by playing a game" (161-162).

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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The journalist author investigates the hidden lives of his father and his grandfather, both physicians. He is motivated by the mysterious silence that pervaded the ancestral home in a wealthy Toronto neighborhood, and by the frightening tendency to depression and suicide that stalks his family members like an Irish curse.

He uncovers many details of the early adventures of his parents, the failure of their marriage, and his father’s doomed career. From his beginnings as a debonair socialite, the father, Jack, embarks on a promising medical career as an allergist; however, he virtually sinks into taciturn misery and alcoholic self-destruction, unable to express affection or joy. Jack’s endless travails as a patient through shock therapy, analysis, and heavy psychiatric drugs are presented in merciless detail using hospital records and interviews with caregivers. The author’s self-indulgent anger with his self-absorbed father drives the research deeper into the earlier generation, to learn about the grandfather of whom his parents rarely spoke.

The author's grandfather, Irish-born John Gerald FitzGerald (1882-1940), son of an immigrant pharmacist and an invalid mother, strode through the exciting scientific world of the early twentieth century like a medical Forrest Gump. At first, he is drawn into the new fields of psychoanalysis, psychiatry, and neuropathology; cameo appearances of Freud, Ernest Jones and C.K. Clarke light up the story. But then this elder FitzGerald is swayed by the need to control infections and produce vaccines. He travels Europe and the United States for three years learning bacteriology.

Upon his return to Canada in 1913, he fearlessly launches a Canadian-made solution, outfitting a stable and a horse farm to produce rabies vaccine and diphtheria anti-toxin. The initiative evolves into the famous Connaught Laboratories and the School of Hygiene, its academic arm. Other luminaries enter the story– such as Banting and Best of insulin fame and C.B. Farrar of psychiatry. FitzGerald served as Scientific Director of the International Health Division of the Rockefeller Foundation and as Dean of the University of Toronto medical school.

Nevertheless in his late fifties, having accomplished so much, the grandfather crashes into doubt, depression and self-destruction, believing himself a failure and consumed with guilt for some never-disclosed transgression. Did his stellar achievements, his high expectations, and his baffling demise dictate the collapse of his son Jack?

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Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

On July 5, 1998, physics Professor Alan Cromer suffered a heart attack on a plane, and survived after almost an hour of resuscitation efforts, but sustained brain injury from lack of oxygen.  In this chronicle of caregiving, his wife, a psychiatric nurse by training, gives a very personal, detailed account of the radical adaptations his disability required of both of them.  Her story includes reflection on his and her own emotional adjustments to loss of parity in communication and awareness, practical adjustments to physical limitations, and social adjustments to family, friends and professional colleagues.

Arduously, over time, Alan regained some ability to read and speak--indeed, he spoke to groups with Janet about their life together during the peak of his rehabilitation.  But the road to even partial recovery was bumpy, and the writer fully acknowledges the pain, grief, irritation, and deep frustrations that intersected moments of authentic pleasure, discovery, and mutual kindness.  Professor Cromer died September 3, 2005.

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Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In May of 1944 the author, a Hungarian Jewish physician, was deported with his wife and daughter by cattle car to the Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz. This memoir chronicles the Auschwitz experience, and the German retreat, ending a year later in Melk, Austria when the Germans surrendered their position there and Nyiszli obtained his freedom. The author describes in almost clinical detail and with alternating detachment and despair what transpired in the crematoria and the dissecting room during his tenure as chief pathologist working directly under Dr. Josef Mengele.

From the first, Nyiszli suspected that there were horrors emanating from the crematoria but he singled himself out from a group of physicians by deciding to "[break] ranks" when Mengele asked those with forensic training to identify themselves. This act secured his survival: the remaining physicians, none of whom stepped forward, all soon perished, while he was assigned to the Sonderkommandos--the prisoners who carried out the exterminations, and who were themselves regularly exterminated to prevent the truth from becoming known. He writes, "As chief physician of the Auschwitz crematoriums, I drafted numerous affidavits of dissection and forensic medicine findings which I signed with my own tattoo number."

At times self-congratulatory about his forensic expertise, at times forcing himself to witness atrocities which he could have avoided, occasionally finding a way to delay death for some of the inmates, Nyiszli was determined to record what he saw--to bear witness, were he to survive. Uncannily able to read a situation and take advantage of it, the author relates how he managed to get his family out of Auschwitz just before they were scheduled for annihilation. Even in the final weeks of the war, when he and thousands of prisoners trudged on foot for weeks with the retreating German army, many dying along the way, he remained shrewdly assertive--and lived.

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Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

As Audrey Young describes her process of becoming a compassionate internist in a besieged public hospital, she simultaneously argues for turning the hospital's patient care and financial practices into a model for improving health care in America.  Young, a compelling storyteller, first entered Seattle's Harborview Medical Center in 1996 as a third-year medical student on trauma surgery service.  She completed a residency there in general internal medicine and stayed on as an attending for six more years.  She stayed, she tells us, because she met physicians "committed to a vision of equality" who were "the sort of people I hoped to become" (xiii).   She also "fell in love" with "the story of a unique place" (xiii).  Young's stories of that often chaotic place, where ambulances regularly transport homeless, indigent, addicted, and mentally ill refugees from neighboring private hospitals, emphasizes the ways the Harborview staff manages to treat patients with dignity and to choose an ethic of hope in the face of dire circumstances.           

We quickly learn that at Harborview compassion is expressed concretely as actions toward patients.  Michael Copass, known as "the mostly benign dictator of emergency operations," pronounced the core of these actions in what came to be known as his commandments:  "1. Work hard.  2. Be polite.  3. Treat the patient graciously, even if he is not the president of the United States" (9).  Politeness always meant asking "'How may I help you, sir?'" regardless of the patient's social status or addiction history.  Politeness sometimes meant finding a way to reach the patient who regularly threatened the staff.  Young finds ways and creates a therapeutic bond.  But working hard and treating patients considerately also took measurable forms, such as not allowing emergency patients to wait.  Facing a flurry of admissions, the Emergency Department (ED) staff interpreted a young Ethiopian's complaints about pain as a drug addict's ploy.  Because Young glanced at the admissions board and noticed that he remained unattended for three hours--far longer than Copass could tolerate--she jumped into action.  He suffered, she discovered, from a collapsed lung. 

However, Young moves her narrative beyond individual doctor and patient encounters and into the larger, interrelated social and financial structures in which medicine is practiced.  For instance, she links meager funding for drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs with expensive ED admissions and rising healthcare costs.  In the chapter "Bunks for Drunks," Young visits an experimental residence that houses homeless addicts in furnished studios with private baths and cooking appliances.  Although residents can keep alcohol in their rooms and elect not to participate in the home's social services, including counseling, alcohol consumption and ED admissions decrease.  While the chapter points out the cost savings of such arrangements, Young further urges readers to value the dignity residents experience there.

In "Black Friday," Young details the hospital's tense, but ingenious responses to a Mass Casualty Incident, the result of carbon monoxide poisoning, which almost depleted the resources of all of Seattle's medical centers.  The final chapter, "A Vision," outlines how Harborview has tried to succeed as both a charitable institution and a business, as a provider of both indigent and luxury care, with the hope that others will follow the medical center's example.  However, in presenting her recommendations for "health justice," Audrey Young also makes the case that "seemingly ordinary citizens" are implicated in healthcare reform (231).  To enable their informed participation in making changes, Young includes an appendix with further readings and another that lists strategies for effecting reform.  

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Annotated by:
Willms, Janice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The author, a young physician, guides the reader in temporal sequence through her years as a medical student, medical resident at several levels, and into the final days of her formal training. The format of the work is anecdotal, that is, a series of memorable patient encounters that seem to shape the writer's developing attitude toward her chosen profession. The precise time frame of the experiences is not clear, but this is an acknowledged story of growing into the practice of medicine as a trainee at Bellevue Hospital.

In describing her interactions with her patients, Dr. Ofri reveals her own doubts about her ability to accomplish some of the things expected of her as "healer." As she grows more confident with experience, she begins to challenge some of the rituals in which medical education seems mired. Each of the chapters is a self-contained story focused on a particular patient, some of which have been published previously as free standing essays. The composite is the physician-writer's personal narrative of her own growth and change.

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Invisible Sisters: A Memoir

Handler, Jessica

Last Updated: Apr-24-2010
Annotated by:
Willms, Janice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The author of this memoir creates a generally temporally sequential tale of the trials of a family fraught with a series of personal tragedies.  The tale is told by Jessica, the eldest of three daughters.  One of her sisters (Sarah) has a rare genetic disorder which affects the daily life of the family as she requires significant medical attention over the nearly three decades of her life.  Into this demanding  drain   on the young family comes the totally unexpected diagnosis of acute lymphocytic leukemia leveled at the youngest sister (Susie).  Susie becomes acutely ill and over a short period of time, dies.

The reader then enters the drama of the dissolution of the family: a father who becomes dysfunctional and unable to assist and a mother who must pick up the remnants and move on with the surviving siblings.  Sarah and Jessica  move forward and live lives into their young adulthoods.  Then, suddenly, Sarah dies.  The remainder of the tale has to do with the author's assessment of the past and of her future.

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Annotated by:
Wear, Delese

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Wasted is the story of a young woman, now in her early twenties, that recounts her fourteen years spent "in the hell of eating disorders," having been bulimic by the age of nine, anorexic at fifteen. The book is also a chronicle of her six hospitalizations, one institutionalization, relentless therapy, the back and forth between being "well" then "sick" then "well" then "sicker." The author dismisses most common notions of persons with eating disorders, instead revealing a complex set of causes, some familial, some cultural, some wedded to her own personality.

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Annotated by:
Wear, Delese

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Prozac Nation is Wurtzel's memoir of her depression, which she traces from the age of 11 to her senior year in college in chapters marking different phases or manifestations of her illness. The book situates her illness squarely within her family dynamics where she found herself the "battlefield on which [her] parents' differences were fought," and describes in excruciating detail her inner life that at any given time was marked with a "free-flowing messy id" to nihilism, numbness, rage, and fear, ultimately leading to a suicide attempt. The last few chapters chronicle her slow "recovery," due to her conflicted relationship with psychopharmacology and an extraordinary psychiatrist.

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Suburban Shaman

Helman, Cecil

Last Updated: Feb-22-2010
Annotated by:
Nixon, Lois LaCivita

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Because this lucid, rich, and incisive book has not, as yet, been published in the United States, it has not acquired the readership it deserves. For those teaching Medical Humanities or those interested in broader or more global stories and perspectives about physician training, practice, and experiences, Helman’s most recent publication should be considered.

Part One (“Setting Out”) begins in South Africa where Helman’s family, comprised of a dozen doctors, has lived for generations and where his own medical studies occurred. As a child, he accompanied his father on rounds while other children spent holidays at the beach. Before long he discovered how hospitals, during the madness of Apartheid, were to “some extent a distorted mirror-image of the world outside” (3). Appalled by the differences in care and treatment, the keenly aware young man kept notes. His vivid observations of the harsh context of social injustices provide an unequivocal, eloquent, and disturbing critique of medicine then and there. His acute observations of physician behaviors and indigent populations in the city and in the bush contribute, as readers discover in later chapters, to the author’s expanded and compelling interests in cultural anthropology.

Part Two (“The Family Doctor”) leads to London. “After all the heat and light and space of Africa, London—with its low leaden sky and constant drizzle—was like living inside a Tupperware box, one stored deep inside a refrigerator” (47). In the 60s Helman’s migration required an adjustment to a world of technology and order, where as a family practitioner, he had become, in fact, a suburban shaman. In any society, patients wanted “relief from discomfort, relief from anxiety, a relationship of compassion and care, some explanation of what has gone wrong, and why, and a sense of order or meaning imposed on the apparent chaos of their personal suffering to help them make sense of it and to cope with it” (xvi).

Gradually Helman saw connections between the role of family physician and traditional healer: both involved an understanding of “not only a body’s internal equilibrium but also the equilibrium of the patient’s relationships with the world he or she lives in and how treatment should aim not only to treat the diseased organ but also to restore the patient’s life that equilibrium of relationships” (xvii). His encounters with patients and the stories they reveal suggest how important these often overlooked connections are and why they ought to be included in medical training and practice.

By the time readers reach Part Three ("States of the Art”), the author has moved into broader realms of thinking, in which medicine and illnesses are examined anthropologically. After 27 years of clinical practice Helman’s white coat and stethoscope are placed on a hook. Now, as a credentialed anthropologist at University College London, his larger lens allows for sustained scrutiny of the complexities, ambiguities, and nuances in such chapters as “Grand Rounds,” “Hospitals,” “Placebos,” “Third Worlds.” Helman’s range of experiences, multi-disciplinary training, intellectual conclusions, and abundant common sense argues for techno-doctors to learn from holistic practitioners. Whether devastating or humorous, the critiques reflect not just care provision but shared human capacities: the insights are thoughtful and fresh and very worthwhile.

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