Jonathan Franzen

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My Father's Brain

Franzen, Jonathan

Last Updated: Apr-12-2016
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay


Jonathan Franzen tells the story of his father’s slow and inexorable decline from Alzheimer’s disease. His story is a familiar one, and one that millions of people can now tell: at first the initial odd behaviors and memory failures attributed to various causes other than dementia, then the diagnosis and medical interventions to stem the inevitable, and finally the inevitable. While Franzen also describes the toll his father’s dementia exacts on the immediate family—as well as some truths it uncovers about his parents’ marriage—he does not put a significant emphasis on family effects.  

Interwoven in Franzen’s recounting of his father’s plight are a few digressions on Alzheimer’s disease. In one he wonders, as many others have, about whether Alzheimer’s disease is more a medicalization of certain behaviors than the result of brain pathology, or otherwise just “ordinary mental illness being trendily misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s.” (p. 19) In others, he briefly summarizes the well-known theory involving plaques and neurofibril tangles as a cause of Alzheimer’s, and thoughts on how memories form and work in the brain. In yet one other digression, Franzen reminds us that Alzheimer’s disease as originally described in 1906 was a rare type of dementia characterized by early onset in middle age and rapid progression. He further notes that it was not until the latter part of the 20th century when Alzheimer’s disease was tagged as the fifth leading cause of death and the disease of the century, and only through the efforts of a coalition comprising clinical scientists, politicians, and patient advocates. 

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