A former gender studies professor’s memoir about living and remembering her life in the face of dementia.
Before 2010, when doctors told her that she had microvascular disease, one of the leading causes of dementia, Saunders had it all: a successful career and a thriving, multigenerational family. She retired from the University of Utah two years later with “no whimpering, no whining, no despair,” fully aware that hers had been a fortunate existence. Hoping to offer something that “could be actually useful in the world,” Saunders began keeping a journal about her “lurch into that ‘strange Country’ ” of memory loss. She started by recalling everything she could about an early life that had begun in the rural Transvaal region of South Africa. By “flesh[ing] out [her] shrinking self with former selves,” the author would become “Doña Quijote,” the madwoman questing for truth. Drawing on literature, scientific research, her family’s collective memory, and her own experiences, Saunders crafts an eloquent, often lyrical book that, in its fragmentation, becomes increasingly affecting over the course of the narrative. As she speaks about growing older and wearing clothes that express “the way I feel rather than look,” for example, she intersperses her reflections with “Dementia Field Notes” journal entries that bluntly address all the difficulties she must face on a daily basis due to her condition. The author’s candor is especially evident in the way she addresses the way her dementia has and will continue to dehumanize her the longer she lives with it. Not wishing to be relegated into a zombielike “neither-dead-nor-alive” status, Saunders discusses the plans she and her family have made to help her die with dignity when her quality of life has dwindled too far. The book is remarkable not only for its fiercely honest, sometimes-poetic portrayal of mental decline, but also for the way the author effectively celebrates “the magisterial of a mind, the grant of an interval to sound the ordinances of a world without being.”
A courageous, richly textured, and unsparing memoir.