Showing 71 - 80 of 204 annotations in the genre "Memoir"

Cockeyed: A Memoir

Knighton, Ryan

Last Updated: Nov-21-2009
Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Ryan Knighton writes in his irreverent memoir that his sometimes comical, sometimes dangerous clumsiness—he smashed his father’s car into a boulder and nearly backed a forklift over a co-worker—registered on others as an unfortunate character trait, the carelessness of a distracted teenager. On Knighton’s eighteenth birthday, a doctor offered another explanation: retinitis pigmentosa. The diagnosis of a degenerative eye disease that causes night blindness and tunnel vision before progressing to complete blindness rescued his moral standing. This rescue and the diagnosis seemed to increase rather than moderate his youthful drive for independence along with his search for strategies to make his disability less conspicuous. He tested his independence by attending Simon Fraser University and sharing an apartment with a deaf student, and he discovered that the chaos and flowing alcohol of the local punk rock clubs made him indistinguishable from other stumbling revelers. The clubs became a place where “blindness worked” (50).

Knighton's title Cockeyed: A Memoir captures and prepares readers for his humorous, never self-protective narrative stance and approach to making blindness work. Although he sustains his irreverence as the narrative unfolds, Knighton also makes tamer concessions to his diminishing vision, such as leaning to use the distinguishing white cane that offers "artificial sight" and a "rickety kind of freedom" (68, 154). He later reconsiders his headlong pursuit of independence when he meets his sighted partner Tracy. With her he discovers an "alarming and rewarding" dependent relationship, in which his disability enables an "intimacy few are given" (183). He also quietly reflects on the meaning of blindness after a family tragedy places his disability in a larger context. Here Knighton coaxes his readers to understand blindness as both an individual and a shared incapacity. The death of a loved one, he writes, blinds us from ever seeing him again. "Seeing," moreover, "is itself touched with elegy. . . The world we see is always gone" (181).



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Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In Dirty Details, Marion Deutsche Cohen writes about the unrelenting labor entailed in caring for her husband Jeffrey at home as multiple sclerosis turns his symptoms from "mere inconveniences" (11) to extraordinary demands, which can disturb her sleep as frequently as twenty times a night.  The premise of her unsparing narrative is that "we have got to spill the dirty details" (26) of such arrangements before the endurance-draining responsibilities of home care such as hers can be understood and redressed.  In a culture that favors narratives of seemingly heroic individual effort, Cohen's brutally forthright descriptions of the effects of Jeff's needs on her life can be mistaken for a self-pitying complaint, rather than an urgent, revelatory, political call to action.  Like her husband, a well-published physicist at the University of Pennsylvania when diagnosed with MS at age 36 in 1977, Cohen is an accomplished professional.  With a PhD in mathematics, Cohen teaches college students as well as publishes poetry and prose.  She and her husband also shared, with increasing asymmetry, the parenting of their four children.                 

Cohen captures the wearying routine of her days in her narrative's echoing refrain, "nights, lifting, and toilet."   The nights refer to Cohen's dangerously disrupted sleep.  Her husband's respirator can sound every half hour or so, inciting her to worry "about the psychological effects of seldom being allowed to finish my dreams" (23).  (When she asks if the machine can be fixed, she's told that it's supposed to behave that way.  By implication, so is she, despite the toll on her well-being.)  Yet she daily rallies the strength to lift her husband on and off the toilet, a feat, among others, that sometimes defied the powers of several hospital nurses working together.   Toilet also means responding to Jeffrey's regular calls to her to drop what she's doing, run upstairs, and bring him a jar.  The jar at least relieves her from lifting.  She experiences only intermittent relief, however, from finding and keeping home health aides who are able to show up reliably and behave civilly during the few hours per day they can be funded.  What results from these tests of human stamina, Cohen tells us, is not "ordinary stress" that some optimistically believe can be managed by taking stress reduction workshops, but rather "dire straits."  "Calling dire straits stress," she corrects, "undermines well spouses and makes us feel alienated and confused about where we stand" (32). 

It's that standing in the broadest sense of the word that Cohen's book most searingly addresses.  While Dirty Details contains one woman's account of caring for a disabled husband at home, the book's wider purpose is to make the labor of family caregivers visible with all its strains, conflicts, messiness, failures, anger, and, at times, humor.   As the straights become increasingly dire, though, Cohen writes about what happens to love as she moves from sustaining tenderness, candor, and their physical intimacy to diminishing her compassion for Jeff and saving herself:  a "pure survival instinct" (87).   After sixteen years in his family's care, Jeff at first reluctantly enters Inglis House, a residence that provides as much independence as possible for those who cannot live independently, where he continues to write and publish.  Cohen's professional life, social life, and beloved parenting once again flourish.  The story she is freed to write (illustrated with photographs by Anna Moon taken with Jeff's consent) lead readers away from her particular circumstances toward a comprehensive interrogation of social and medical systems that operate by leaving the most chronically ill and disabled citizens in their families' care by default.   And leave the families in dire straits.

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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In 1997, the author’s 14-year-old son, Ike, began a puzzling, progressive degenerative illness. Slowly, this undiagnosed disease claimed Ike’s ability to walk, to study, to participate in normal adolescent activities and, finally, to reason. Going from physician to physician, seeking if not a cure than at least a working diagnosis, the author became a self-taught expert in all things neurological.

As her son’s condition worsened, she also became an expert in grief and despair. In Blue Peninsula, her first book, McKeithen relates how she became, as well, a poetry addict--reading, devouring, tearing poems out of journals, buying volumes that she could carry to office or hospital, hiding poems in her purse or pocket. Using poems or pieces of poems--sometimes she could not bear to read a final stanza, one that perhaps ended in death or unrelenting despair--she cobbled together a survival plan.

Indeed, in this small book of short, to-the-point chapters (with titles such as "Crying in the Car," Open to It," Acquiring Losses," Sifting Questions," "Naming," "Shipwreck," and "Shelving Selves"), she reveals how she used poems to grieve, to question, to celebrate, to maintain, to curse, and to endure. The story of Ike’s illness, treatment and slow decline are interwoven with these poems and the author’s often surprising commentary on how she mined the poet’s metaphors. If a poem could put suffering into words, the author suggests, she needed that poem to survive.

The author’s choice of poems and poets is far-reaching, and her interpretations of what they mean and how they helped her along the path of her son’s illness are intimate, gritty and insightful. A brief listing of poets includes Emily Dickinson (whose poem "Blue Peninsula" supplied the book’s title), Billy Collins, Elizabeth Bishop, Diane Ackerman, Zbiginew Herbert, The Rolling Stones, Paul Celan, Molly Peacock, David Whyte and many others, known and lesser known.

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The Oath

Baiev, Khassan

Last Updated: Nov-15-2009
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Baiev’s chronicle of medical life in wartime is full of incident—tragic, touching, and repeatedly traumatic:  his own life was threatened repeatedly by Russians who suspected him and Chechens who resented him for treating Russians.  Members of his extended family were killed and his father’s home was destroyed.  He straddled other boundaries:  trained in Russia, he fully appreciated how modern medicine may bring relief not available even in the hands of the most respected traditional healers, but he mentions traditional ways with the reverence of a good son of devout Muslims.  His perspective is both thoughtfully nationalistic and international.

Finally coming to the States where he couldn’t at first practice the medicine he had honed to exceptional versatility under fire, he lives with a mix of gratitude for the privilege of safety and a longing for the people he served, whose suffering was his daily work for years that might for most of us have seemed nearly unlivable.  Before writing the book, he struggled with his own post-traumatic stress, and continues to testify to the futility of force as a way of settling disputes.  Medicine is his diplomacy as well as his gift to his own people, and the Hippocratic Oath a commitment that sustained him in the midst of ethical complexities unlike any one would be likely to face in peacetime practice.

 

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Send In The Idiots

Nazeer, Kamran

Last Updated: Sep-21-2009
Annotated by:
Henderson, Schuyler

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Send in the Idiots is a witty and moving tale of reunion, part memoir and part journalistic character study. Nazeer, hailing from a Pakistani family that has lived in the United States, Great Britain, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, returns to the United States, where he had attended a school for autistic children during his early youth. He tracks down some of those who were also at that school with him, in order to find out how they are doing, what they are doing, and how their autism has affected their lives. He locates three people who were in the same class as he was and goes to visit them; he finds the family of a fourth; and finally sits down and has a slice of cheesecake with their former teacher and principal. Now a civil servant in the English government, Nazeer visits Andre, a computer scientist who makes uses of puppets to facilitate communication; Randall, a bike courier in Chicago and poet; and Chris, a speechwriter in Washington, DC. He then stays with the parents of Elizabeth, who had committed suicide a few years before, and through them finds out about her life, and about how parents may cope in the aftermath of such an awful catastrophe. Finally, he meets with Rebecca, who had been one of their teachers, and Ira, the prinicipal of the school, which has since shut down.

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Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

On February 16, 2003, readers of The New York Times Magazine came upon Harriet McBryde Johnson's cover story, "Unspeakable Conversations," and a remarkable image of her gazing directly at those readers from her power wheelchair.  Her story memorably recounts her uncompromising, yet civil disagreements with Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer about nothing less than the value of her life.  That narrative essay is one of eleven stories published in Too Late to Die Young.

They make the case that philosophers and others have incorrectly imagined Johnson's life, and the lives of others with chronic and disabling conditions, as burdensome and not worth living.  Born with a degenerative neuromuscular disease, Johnson grew up in a family that appreciated her; she practiced law in her native Charleston, South Carolina, and became nationally known for her disability activism.  Still, she encountered a world filled with people who feared her condition.  Fear, she found, led them to assume that disability inevitably brings suffering and to use that assumption to justify acts that would prevent her birth.

Her stories, conversationally and often humorously, ask readers to question why they burden some people with calls to justify their lives or to assure the world that they experience pleasure.  Each story recounts an episode that reveals the pleasures Johnson experienced as an active agent in the world.  She ran for a county office, represented her state at a Democratic National Convention, stood her ground for free speech and against Secret Service tactics when President Reagan spoke at her law school, protested Labor Day Week-end telethons, traveled to Cuba to cover a disability conference for a magazine, advocated for clients in employment discrimination cases, and made many, many friends.

Feeling exhilarated rather than confined by her wheelchair, she bears witness, perhaps unexpectedly, to another pleasure:  "the simple delight of movement."  She writes of maneuvering around Charleston, "I zoom through chaotic swarms of tourists, zip around the raggedy sidewalks . . . loop around every inconveniently placed garbage can, with maximum speed and also with style and grace" (252).  But her stories also describe her wheelchair stumbling over incompatible surfaces, one of which sends her to an emergency room far from home.  This episode also brings moments of grace, this time with the ER staff.  After learning who she is, they Google her on-line profiles and writings.  Delighting in their patient with unpredictable needs, they place print-outs of her electronic portfolio in her chart.

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Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Triggered in part by a trip to the Galápagos Islands, the author interweaves two parallel narratives: Darwin's "journey toward evolution" along with the related work of Alfred Russel Wallace; and the author's own journey through life, partially disabled and dependent on the specially fitted shoes that help him to walk.  Together these two narratives develop "all I have come to understand about chance and change, fear and transformation, variation and cultural context, ideas about the body that question the definition and existence of difference in all of our lives" (xvii).

Born with an unnamed congenital condition in which his fibulae are absent along with other lower limb "abnormalities," Fries underwent five major reconstructive surgeries as a child, but after those, what helped him most were special shoes that were fitted to his special body, assisting him to walk.  As an adult, however, he begins to experience back pain and knee problems.  The memoir relates, both in flashback, and in the present day, Fries's quest for a proper pair of shoes that will help him avoid yet another surgery -- the shoes he has been wearing are 20 years old and no longer do the job.  We meet Dr. Mendotti, who treated him like a peculiar specimen and offered a pharmacologic way out of his pain; shoemaker Eneslow, in a dingy Union Square office, whose shoes not only fit Fries well, but were festive in appearance -- "I felt both normal and special" (17); other practitioners of orthotics who try but fail to construct shoes that relieve Fries's pain, and finally, the gifted, patient orthoticist, Tom Coburn, who persists until he is able to provide shoes that work.  The shoes have been adapted for Fries's body, just as man has constructed adaptations that allow him to live in a variety of climates and circumstances.  Conversely, Fries, convinced he "can adapt to the circumstances in which my body places me (169)," draws from Darwin, whom he quotes: "individual differences are highly important for us, as they afford materials for natural selection to accumulate" (169).
 
Darwinian connections are invoked throughout the narrative.  The peculiar configuration of Fries's feet and shoes help him to ascend a series of mountain ladders while his partner, Ian -- who usually has to assist Fries with such physical maneuvers -- suddenly becomes fearful of the height and exposure;  back problems might have developed even without his congenital abnormalities because evolution of the capacity to walk upright included the tendency toward back pain; the role of chance in natural selection and the role of chance in the physical fact of congenital conditions; the positive role that his partner Ian's attention deficit disorder (ADD) could have played in the days of hunter-gatherers and the cultural context in which ADD is now considered to be "abnormal."
 
Fries discusses his fears -- both rational and irrational -- as well as his awareness of stigma, difference, and sameness.  The context of these discussions is usually a reminiscence about vacations in far-flung countries (Thailand, the Galápagos, Bali, Alaska, the Canadian Rockies) and physically challenging domestic locales (a Colorado River raft trip, the Beehive Mountain in Acadia National Park).  He  occasionally brings into the discussion his homosexuality, especially as his physical deformity affected sexual encounters.  The relationship between Fries and Ian is woven throughout the memoir as one of understanding, mutual need and benefit.  As the memoir ends, Fries worries about the likelihood he will need a wheelchair, but is at the same time gathering confidence in his ability to ride the Easy Flyer bicycle that Ian has discovered at the local bike shop.

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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Author Jennifer Culkin has been involved, for all of her nursing career, in high stakes, heart stopping, instant-decision-making areas of critical care.  After years working in Neonatal Intensive Care, she became a flight nurse--and giving intensive care to trauma victims while trying to maintain balance and sterile technique in a wind-buffeted helicopter has to be one of the most difficult tasks a nurse might undertake.  Her memoir, A Final Arc of Sky, opens with such a scene.  The patient, Doug, is soon crashing, and the nursing team, Jennifer and her partner, have to make a series of tough decisions (pp. 8-12).  From this scene on, the action rarely wavers.  And although Culkin keeps the pace moving, she is not always, or even most often, telling us about similar traumas.  She deftly weaves her personal narrative--husband and sons and dying parents--in and out of scenes from her nursing career, braiding the plot lines of her life in chapters both moving and compelling. 

In those chapters that deal with the often dangerous helicopter transports Culkin has flown, we learn (and we feel) just what it's like to be a flight nurse crammed in-between patient and helicopter door, juggling instruments that too often slip to the floor and trying to save patients that too often want to die.  In those pages that deal with family, we are privy to Culkin's internal debate about how to separate family from nursing (what she calls "the great neuronal divide between my work and my life" (p.136), and we see that she sometimes doesn't have much energy left at the end of the day to draw close to those she loves.  Part of what makes this memoir difficult to put down is the persona of the narrator herself: Culkin comes across as an honest, often irreverent risk taker, a woman who likes to ride her bike down dangerous hills at breakneck speed and allows her son to do the same (see chapter six, p. 57); a woman who loves the dangerous drama of flight nursing and doesn't worry about crashing (p. 80)--in fact she enjoys strapping herself "into the eye of a maelstrom" (p. 80). 

This memoir entertains, and it provides a glimpse into how some caregivers not only risk their lives to save the lives of others but also shoulder the responsibility of making split second decisions upon which a patient's life might depend.  And there is a surprise in this memoir, one that I can't too fully divulge because to do so would be to rob potential readers of their own discovery.  Suffice it to say that near the end, Culkin reveals something about her own health, an illness she has fought against in every chapter.  When we learn the details of her own illness narrative, we look again, with new understanding, at her fascinating career and her interactions with her loved ones.   

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Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In this candid chronicle of what many would call a prolonged depression occasioned in part by her husband's illness and death, Norris, a popular memoirist and essayist, seeks carefully to distinguish the psychological or psycho-medical category of "depression" from the spiritual state of "acedia" or, more bluntly, "sloth," in its oldest and most precise sense.  In doing so she raises important questions about widespread and often imprecise use of categories derived from clinical psychology, an imprecision that may muddy the distinction between spiritual and psychopathological experience.

"Acedia" she defines as a failure of will, signifying a need for spiritual guidance and prayer, whereas "depression" requires medical treatment.  Going beyond the confessional, Norris suggests that acedia may be an endemic condition among middle-class Americans, over-busy but spiritually slothful.  The book is loosely organized, often characteristically lyrical, and more invitational than diagnostic.  Her purpose, finally, seems to be to inspire readers to embrace simple life-giving spiritual disciplines like reading the Psalms as a stay against excessive self-preoccupation and actual depression as well as spiritual depletion.  

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Body Language

Studer, Constance

Last Updated: Mar-10-2009
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Body Language, a beautifully crafted and expansive memoir by retired nurse Constance Studer, spans a range of issues within the narrative of the author's life: a childhood marred by a medical procedure--a hasty frontal lobotomy that left her father incarcerated in a mental institute-- and, in later years, by her own illness, one caused by the Hepatitis B vaccine.  These two events are the bookends that frame Body Language, a memoir that examines family life, nursing, medicine, medical ethics, personal survival and illness in language that is poetic and compelling.  Studer, a writer as well as a nurse, intersperses her own story--which is novel-like in its intensity--with literary allusions, research material and knowledge culled from her years as a nurse in Intensive Care.  In her memoir, she writes not only with the authority of one who has been on both sides of the bed, as professional caregiver and as suffering patient, but also as a family member who has witnessed how unwise and unchallenged medical decisions might affect generations. 

What I especially admire about this memoir is that it is not simply a "telling about."  Instead Studer brings us into the action of the narrative, for example giving us imagery and dialogue as her father prepares for the surgery that he doesn't know will deprive him of memory and sense ("Holy Socks" p. 21).  She also intertwines many narrative strands, giving us the fullness of her family history and her professional adventures, so that when we reach the narrative of her own illness we have a sense of a life, a full life, that has been forever altered.

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