A Library Journal Best Book of 2015
National Book Award winner Jonathan Kozol is best known for his fifty years of work among our nation’s poorest and most vulnerable children. Now, in the most personal book of his career, he tells the story of his father’s life and work as a nationally noted specialist in disorders of the brain and his astonishing ability, at the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, to explain the causes of his sickness and then to narrate, step-by-step, his slow descent into dementia.
Dr. Harry Kozol was born in Boston in 1906. Classically trained at Harvard and Johns Hopkins, he was an unusually intuitive clinician with a special gift for diagnosing interwoven elements of neurological and psychiatric illnesses in highly complicated and creative people. “One of the most intense relationships of his career,” his son recalls, “was with Eugene O’Neill, who moved to Boston in the last years of his life so my father could examine him and talk with him almost every day.” At a later stage in his career, he evaluated criminal defendants including Patricia Hearst and the Boston Strangler, Albert H. DeSalvo, who described to him in detail what was going through his mind while he was killing thirteen women.
But The Theft of Memory is not primarily about a doctor’s public life. The heart of the book lies in the bond between a father and his son and the ways that bond intensified even as Harry’s verbal skills and cogency progressively abandoned him. “Somehow,” the author says, “all those hours that we spent trying to fathom something that he wanted to express, or summon up a vivid piece of seemingly lost memory that still brought a smile to his eyes, left me with a deeper sense of intimate connection with my father than I’d ever felt before.”
Lyrical and stirring, The Theft of Memory is at once a tender tribute to a father from his son and a richly colored portrait of a devoted doctor who lived more than a century.
Kozol (Savage Inequalities), a celebrated crusader for a balanced public school education, shifts his gaze to old age and the heartbreaking but strangely consoling decline of his parents in this luminous memoir. Kozol recounts the last years of his father, Harry, when Alzheimer's robbed him of his wits but not entirely of his personality. During this period, Kozol got to know his parents better than ever, despite their diminished capacities. Much of the book is an absorbing retrospective of Harry's career as a neuropsychiatrist, including his work with playwright Eugene O'Neill, heiress-turned-revolutionary Patricia Hearst, and suspected "Boston Strangler" Albert DeSalvo. Mainly, though, it's about Kozol coping with Harry's growing helplessness as his mind dims: helping him complete his thoughts, deciphering the incoherent medical memos he issues, and arranging for companions, pets, and small pleasures that give his father's existence meaning. Kozol's frail but strong-willed mother Ruth is also a commanding presence in the book. The author's approach is shrewd yet warmly empathetic; he is curious about how the mind's gradual breakdown exposes its machinery, and raptly attuned to the emotional effects of these changes on his parents and himself. The result is a clear-eyed and deeply felt meditation on the aspects of family that age does not ravage.