Skloot sketches the similarities between his own mental deterioration due to a brain-ravaging virus and his nonagenarian mother’s dementia.
This sequel to In the Shadow of Memory (2003) opens shortly after Skloot moves his mother from her home in New York to a long-term care facility near his Oregon residence. For most of her life, Lillian Skloot was a bitter, harsh woman; her son now finds himself navigating an emotionally charged role reversal as he tries to accept the sweet, childlike dependent that she has become. Perhaps the most distinguished aspect of this book, sections of which were previously published in The Best American Science Writing 2003, The Best American Essays 2004 and The Antioch Review, is Skloot’s economy in rendering his miserable childhood. Instead of lengthy, purple litanies of youthful horrors, he offers spare sentences that evoke a world. “For years I thought mothers normally bit deep gouges into their own wrists when children spilled a glass of milk,” he writes. “I imagined all boys and girls listened while their mothers dialed the phone, asked to talk to the director of the county hospital’s ‘insane unit,’ and asked if there was a room available for a little boy who had disobeyed his mother.” The book does, at times, feel disjointed. (At one point, for example, Skloot interrupts an eloquent description of his mother for a seemingly irrelevant recollection of an adolescent romance. Perhaps this disjointedness pushes the reader even further into the author’s territory, a place where our minds are not reliable, where we feel dislocated, where we have to come to terms with our own frailty and the frailty of those we love.
Deserves a wide audience.