A tenaciously engaged memoir from Levine (Harmful to Minors, 2002, etc.) about her relationship with her parents as her father drifts deeper and deeper into Alzheimer’s.
It starts with Lillian and Stan Levine’s 50th wedding anniversary party, as Stan rambles on and on and on. “For those who do not know what is happening to him, the party is Dad’s coming out as a dement,” writes his daughter. For his family—feisty, contentious, left-wing, New York Jewish intellectuals among whom the brain reigns supreme—it is the cruel reality. But in the bigger picture, reactions to Stan’s ailment reflect our hyper-cognitive society, she argues: “We consider dementia not just a disease, but a living death.” Delving into the literature of Alzheimer’s for answers and writing with a sure hand on unstable ground, Levine explores the disease’s social effects. “More than social normality comes with language; personhood does,” and as the first goes, so, our society deems, does the latter. Once, “the aged lived among us all, ill or hale, helpful or inconvenient, respected or humiliated in differing measure.” That is often no longer the case; we have systematically “stripped elderly people of the roles that had sustained meaning in their lives through mandatory retirement, social isolation, and the disintegration of traditional family ties.” After her mother starts to crumble under the responsibility, starting a new relationship as the old one slips away, Levine must confront the idea of putting her father into a nursing home. Her narrative is emotional as well as intellectual: she grapples with her feelings for her father, who was an overbearing, provocative (and occasionally violent) lord of misrule; she considers and rejects taking him under her own care; she jousts with her mother over her seeming abandonment of her husband. It is a maddening, very human dance, and Levine gets it down just right.
Roiling, confrontational family portrait.