Strange Relation is a memoir of the terminal illness of George Edwards, a composer and professor of music at Columbia University, written by Rachel Hadas, his wife, a well- known poet and herself a professor of English at Rutgers University. Hadas begins with the insidious onset of Edwards's dementia, which is eventually diagnosed as frontotemporal dementia, a slow neurodegenerative disease characterized by a progressive paucity - and then absence - of communication, especially speech. She then continues with their meetings with physicians, especially neurologists, social workers, support groups and eventually nursing home personnel, recording, often in the form of her poems, her thoughts and reactions at the time.

The book consists of short chapters, more or less chronological, with occasional flashbacks to earlier periods in her life or their marriage. In addition to her poems, there are ubiquitous references to literature, many of them familiar, as well as not so familiar illness narratives by patients and relatives, especially those involving dementia and bereavement. George died in 2011, the year of the publication of this book, after 33 years of marriage to Ms. Hadas.


Rachel Hadas is a distinguished poet and literary critic.  She is also a translator of works from classical Greek and Latin, many of which are incorporated into her poetry, and a respected authority on Constantine Cavafy and James Merrill, a former friend and colleague. Taking this book's title from Wallace Stevens's poem, "Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction," Hadas immediately (page 46) stakes out the province of imagination, especially literary imagination, as the realm in which she plans to locate her memoir, a realm she successfully explores for the remaining 200 pages.   The book is a reconstructed narrative of the years during the duration of her husband’s illness. For, as Hadas herself emphasizes, Strange Relation is an intertwined double helix of illness narratives - hers and her husband's. As his preferred medium of communication - musical notes - fails, hers - written words - takes over to tell their story. Although, as she writes, it is always difficult to read others' minds (page 19), her husband's was more of a black box mystery than usual given his illness, which is characterized by progressive silence. This leads the author to admit that she "can't claim to be telling the story from his point of view. For better or worse, this is my story." (page xi)

Strange Relation is a brave work of literature. Hadas’ primary modus operandi is to reconstruct the account of her husband's illness and her reactions to it via autobiographical narrative with her own and others' poems and literary references, from Homer to Milton to Shakespeare to Cavafy, Larkin to Merrill to Wharton. Or as Hadas writes, "If silence was the enemy, literature was my best friend." (page ix) For Hadas, her "friends” help explain the different stages of her husband's illness and become equally useful, clarifying and amplifying the narrative for her readers as well.   

Hadas is especially deft when demonstrating how literature informs life's daily vicissitudes of change, as in the inexorably destructive pace of her husband's dementia. She compares the "imperceptibly stealthy advance of unwelcome knowledge" (page 19) of her husband's silence to the wonderful description of an equally unwelcome realization for the protagonist in Barry Unsworth's The Ruby in Her Navel. Likewise, she quotes Allegra Goodman’s essay about the virtue and effects of re-reading, emphasizing the newness of understanding, of realization, of anagnorisis that comes with re-reading when the context, not the text, has changed.  Goodman is discussing texts; Hadas, the context of her husband's illness. Her close reading of the evolution of George's illness is astute. She never loses track of silence, the leitmotif of this book. 

Silence is the focus of Hadas's writerly attention. In fact it is not so much silence as communication and the paucity, then absence, of it. Indeed, Hadas corrects herself about this absence: "this silence and emptiness weren't neutral, they were aggressive." (page 56) There are prolonged meditations on silence—literary, mythological and autobiographical. She describes the silence of her husband, and subsequently their marriage, as a "cage of silence" (page 87) and a "narrow ledge of silence" (page 107), a narrow ledge the author finds herself co-inhabiting with him. As she writes, "It was as if by joining George on his walks I was trying to get closer to him by edging into the opaque realm of his silence." (page 87). Hadas paints a graphic picture of conflict, the conflict of a wife who loves her husband and at times thinks of joining him in his silence versus her professional instinct to give voice, literary voice, to this silence at the possible expense of exposing her husband's illness and privacy and, as well, the pain of her reconstruction and analysis.  Such conflicts are part and parcel of a loving care-giver's daily storms of ambivalence.

Hadas makes many references, as one might understand in a narrative about two people closely related by marriage, to two, to doubles, and, once, explicitly to doppelgängers in this book., Beginning with her functioning as an interpreter for her husband (page 14), the author proceeds to cite Merrill's "double-entry bookkeeping" (page 24), referring to two possible interpretations of a poem; Molly Peacock's "double track" (a care-giver simultaneously living the life of a care-giver and her personal, non-care-giving, often professional life) (page 32); "paired thinking" and "contradictory dyads" (both page 118); "intrinsic ambivalence" (page 121); numerous references to shades (the after-life representation of the former living self, a term any Classicist would use to represent the other, less alive form of a self, e.g., "shades drifting through the nether world" (page 125), "the shadowy weight of his spectral absence" (page 143), and George's "ghostly silence" vis-à-vis Wallace Stevens's poem "The Snow Man", "whose spectral speculations might be said to capture this summer's elusive texture." (page 167).  Finally,  quoting Carolyn Feigelson’s “the doppelgänger at the dinner table” (Feigelson), Hadas acknowledges the existence of what Keppler calls “the second self”, in this instance, the double of her husband’s former self. (Keppler).    

Strange Relation is a study in grief work, or, more properly, pre-grief work, since George's illness was so indolent. It would offer a rewarding comparison with other works in this database working out a woman's grief over the loss of a man close to her, viz., Susan Hill's In the Springtime of the Year, or Mary Jo Bang's Elegy. Written as part-diary, part open letter to George, part memoir for the reader unfamiliar with her family or frontotemporal dementia, Strange Relation has some very memorable passages, even heartbreaking, e.g., a Janusian look backward to how vivacious George had been and forward to "the prospect of his leaving" which "stabs me with remorse." (page 135) Or the tremendously sad page (161) of George's journal with its disintegrating handwriting attempting to spell words vaguely recognizable to the reader. And the emotionally wrenching villanelle, "The Boat" (page 84), included in her subsequent collection of poetry, The Ache of Appetite.   This book will prove very useful for those interested in the evolution of an illness; the effects of a chronic illness on an intimate care-giver, the toll such an illness takes on the family (they have a son, Jonathan, who enters college towards the end of the narrative); how a family member gleans help from support groups and books written by others like herself; and, not the least of its myriad benefits, a cornucopia of references, mostly poetic, regarding all aspects of chronic illness. There are abundant in text citations of pathographical works, some of which are in this database, like Jonathan Franzen's essay "My Father's Brain", and more literary works, like Frost's "Home Burial."


Feigelson, C. (1993). Personality death, object loss, and the uncanny. International journal of psycho-analysis, 74, 331-345. Keppler, CF.

The LIterature of the Second Self. Tucson, Univ Arizona Press; 1972.


Paul Dry Books

Place Published




Page Count