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.  


This is an informative and emotional book about Dr. Kozol and son Jonathan. It is also very sad, in part because of the unavoidable decline of an aged and formerly brilliant man and in part because the son seems to have had very little help and support during the decline and death of both his parents. Both parents die as centenarians—an unusual circumstance for any family.  

A gifted stylist, Kozol puts us in many a scene, from a happy walk with his father in nature to the difficulties of his father’s rectum impacted with feces. The focus moves through various scenes, some uncomfortable for the reader, such as a discussion of both his parents’ infidelities. 

The book is not only sad but also, we might say, claustrophobic because of the intense dyad of father and son, with other characters more or less peripheral: the paid companions, even his mother. The treating physicians are unnamed, ghostly, and prone to errors.  A sister is across the country; there are no neighbors or friends, no religious community or trained leaders such as a rabbi, no social workers, nor any other knowledgeable advisors about end-of-life situations, such as Hospice workers. His mother becomes friends with Martha Overall, an Episcopal priest, who officiates at a graveside ceremony for the mother, but we see no specific guidance from her for the family. A nursing home where Dr. Kozol stays for a while is unattractive and sometimes delivers incompetent care.

Indeed medicine as a whole seems at fault. Kozol writes about the paid companions and medicine in general:  “I did the best I could to back up Silvia and Julia…to navigate a system of heartbreaking and bureaucratized medical impersonality for which, one can only hope…a more effective an human alternative is someday put in place” (page 212). 

Tragically, the Kozol family does not have the benefits of the strategies and structures for end-of-life care described in Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (2014). These either came too late chronologically or were otherwise unavailable or unsought for—even in Boston.

There’s an irony in the title, “The Theft of Memory” in that Kozol has worked hard to retrieve and save in writing many aspects of Harry Kozol’s professional life. Kozol has spent time with his father’s boxed papers and has done other research; there are eleven pages of single-spaced notes as well as a ten-page, detailed Index at the end of the book—as if to permanently recapture memories and to regain the “lost” father forever.


Crown Publisheshers

Place Published

New York



Page Count