In her award-winning book Harmful to Minors, Judith Levine radically upended our fixed ideas about childhood. Now, she tackles the other end of life in this poignant memoir of a daughter coming to terms with a difficult father who is sinking into dementia, presenting an insightful exploration of the ways we think about disability, aging, and the self as it resides in the body and the world.
In prose that is unsentimental yet moving, serious yet darkly funny, complex in emotion and ideas yet spare in diction, Levine reassembles her father's personal and professional history even as he is losing track of it. She unpeels the layers of his complicated personality and uncovers information that surprises even her mother, to whom her father has been married for more than sixty years.
As her father deteriorates, the family consensus about who he was and is and how best to care for him constantly threatens to collapse. Levine recounts the painful discussions, mad outbursts, and gingerly negotiations, and dissects the shifting alliances among family, friends, and a changing guard of hired caretakers. Spending more and more time with her father, she confronts a relationship that has long felt bereft of love. By caring for his needs, she learns to care about and, slowly, to love him.
While Levine chronicles these developments, she looks outside her family for the sources of their perceptions and expectations, deftly weaving politics, science, history, and philosophy into their personal story. A memoir opens up to become a critique of our culture's attitudes toward the elderley. A claustrophobic account of Alzheimer's is transformed into a complex lesson about love, duty, and community.
What creates a self and keeps it whole? Levine insists that only the collaboration of others can safeguard her father's self against the riddling of his brain. Embracing interdependence and vulnerability, not autonomy and productivity, as the seminal elements of our humanity, Levine challenges herself and her readers to find new meaning, even hope, in one man's mortality and our own.
Unsentimental and unsparing, this work studies in unnerving detail what happens when the mind begins to separate from the body and how our society has no model for coping with such fragmentation. Everything disintegrates for Levine's father, a psychologist and liberal political activist, after his Alzheimer's diagnosis. He can no longer comprehend books and magazines, and continues to flirt with women but cannot be intimate with his wife of 59 years. Levine, a natural storyteller and author of the controversial Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, presents more than a tale about one man's disease and its impact on his family; she also examines how society separates itself from those who can no longer think clearly. She explicates the mind/body issues inherent in Alzheimer's from multiple perspectives, invoking a host of psychologists and scientists. She makes herself examine her relationship with her father (which has always been fraught) and her mother (whom she resents for leaving her ill father for another man). Statistics explicate Alzheimer's prevalence (10% of those over 65 have it; 50% of those over 85), but Levine delves beyond the numbers, examining the socio-political psychology of Alzheimer's treatment and what happens to those who fall prey to it. As her father worsens, Levine gets closer to him. This is a daughter's poignant homage to a father she came to know best after he lost his mind, but it's also a searing indictment of how America treats its disabled and a cautionary tale for aging baby boomers.