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A Stroke, a Marriage, and the Language of Healing

by Diane Ackerman

Pub Date: April 4th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-393-07241-9
Publisher: Norton

From prolific poet and essayist Ackerman (Dawn Light: Dancing with Cranes and Other Ways to Start the Day, 2009, etc.), a sensitive memoir about how her relationship with her husband, novelist Paul West, evolved in the aftermath of his stroke.

In one tragic moment, the author watched her husband go from a man with perhaps “one of the largest working vocabularies on earth” to one who could only utter one syllable: “mem.” With most of the language centers in West’s brain crippled, the prognosis for improvement was grim. Undaunted, Ackerman sought standard language-relearning therapies for her husband, which met with frustratingly limited success. Then she tried more unconventional approaches that encouraged West to express himself through circumlocution and creative wordplay. The author understood that her husband needed to be “cajoled, tempted, led out, absorbed in chatting about everyday things, and surrounded by people who talked slowly to him but normally to one another.” As West regained greater linguistic fluency, Ackerman encouraged him to dictate his stroke experiences to her. This project—which was later published in 2008 as The Shadow Factory—offered her husband a way to link the person he had become with the person he had been. It also allowed a glimpse into the extraordinary inner world West had developed as a result of his illness. Soon after the stroke, he claimed to hear three distinct “voices” belonging to, respectively, a BBC announcer, a “tongue-tied aphasic” and a “language-loving scribe with American turns of phrase.” Though initially doomed by doctors to a vegetative existence, West eventually recovered enough to resume his writing and lead a limited, though relatively normal life.

Ackerman’s book is important for the guidance and hope it offers to stroke victims and their families, and it’s also a satisfying, tender and humane celebration of love between two literary elites.