Jonathan Kozol

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir


Kozol tells a multilayered story about himself and his father, a distinguished physician who becomes increasingly demented by Alzheimer’s disease, starting at age 88. A neurologist, Dr. Harry Kozol is able to diagnose with great specificity his own disease.     
Son Kozol describes his father’s initial symptoms and the slow decline, a direction that is sadly and fatefully, clear. The son goes on walks with him, describes their conversations, arranges for paid companions, and puzzles about what must be “a life beneath the life” of his progressively inarticulate father.

Over the 14 years of this illness, there are some medical mishaps—including problems in continuity of care—depletion of the family’s money, and Jonathan’s hesitation to use a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order for his father or for his aging mother. He writes of his doubts, uncertainties, and mixed emotions. When his father is actively dying, Kozol dawdles elsewhere with lists and papers “obsessively.” He understands this, in retrospect, as denial. Nevertheless he arrives at the hospital and places his ear on his father’s chest, hearing breaths come slower and slower until death. Dr. Kozol dies in 2008 at the age of 102.

Alternating with this story are long passages about Dr. Kozol’s professional life, including his work with Eugene O’Neill and family, also Patty Hearst and Albert DeSalvo (“The Boston Strangler”). For the latter two, he is an expert witness in court cases. These passages illustrate his many skills, tenacity, and ideals.

A 25-page Epilogue written a half a dozen years later casts a different light on the father-son relationship. While the bulk of the book shows a loving, respectful relationship, the Epilogue describes tensions and disagreements between the two from Jonathan’s childhood to later years. The father criticizes what he perceives as failures, lack of ambition, poor choices, and the like. Kozol describes his own illustrious career, often in directions his father disapproves. In later years, however, Kozol accepts some of his father’s advice and understands their status more as equals. In another seven years, however, Dr. Kozol’s mind starts its difficult path, and the son becomes the caregiver to the father.  

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