Friday, October 5, 2007

A New Style of Writing

Hey Everyone,

I feel that we have entered new territory in this class. We have moved away from the more scientific case study style of writing of Sacks and Luria (as poetic as they are), which are laden with scientific data, history and findings, and have moved to accounts that truly belong in the memoir section of the bookstore. So I wanted to offer you some talking points on this new subject. Please, feel free to take one and run with it or give me an answer for most of the questions. It's up to you. Use this as an opportunity to give your self a change to really digest these new readings.

This past week we have had the opportunity to read “In the Shadow of Memory” by Floyd Skloot and “The Missing World,” authored by Margot Livesey. In both we were privy to not only the situation of a patient but their family, the suffering it caused “the family unit” and how disease “insults” time. I believe that Skloot offered us a really humane depiction of his disease, a first count depiction of his life and his struggle. I think that it drove the point home because it wasn’t being delivered via a third party. Skloot was directly connecting with the audience. Very different from what we had seen in Sacks and Luria, in which they were the storytellers. Sacks worked with these people and tried as he may, it still wasn’t a first person narrative. His ideas, perceptions and medical background removed the reader from the story. Now I know that we got a fantastic sense of the character anyways (and this is NOT an attack on his prose because it is beautiful) but there is something to be said when a man (or woman) sits down, especially when they are injured and must slave over their work, and crystallizes their thoughts in writing. We did see more of this struggle to express oneself in Luria (and many parallels can be drawn between S and Skloot) but the sheer fact was Luria still had to deliver the story of S because he was unable to express himself in an organized matter.

Do you agree with this? Could you argue that Luria and Sacks are even more humane because they have the medical experience and bedside manner to write these books? No confabulation necessary. It is hard to tell in our day and age when plots are exaggerated and heightened for effect just to sell more copies—think of James Fry and “A Million Little Pieces.” Can we really trust our writers anymore? Even still, to me, the fact that Skloot sat down although he was personality incapacitated with disease and turned out the prose that he did is astonishing.

Which leads into my next point: the interesting style of Skloot's book. It was almost hard for me to shift back into novel mode after reading Luria and Sacks that almost spoon-feed you the material. They explain a disease and it’s history. That did not happen with Skloot. In fact if you didn’t really understand how the back of the brain progresses forward to the forehead and that brain function heightens to more advanced levels, you must not have completely understood how a virus decomposed a lot of Skloot’s brain. How effective was this, letting you figure out exactly what was wrong? I know that I struggled with it.

As I was reading the trilogy of stories, it actually could have been based on different families on different parts of the illness spectrum. Once I realized, it had a rather intense cohesion. It was interesting how he started at the end of his life out on the North Sea; traveled back to his childhood and that of his patients; then he went to discuss his brother and his middle-aged life. How did you feel about this disjointed method of story telling? Was it effective or confusing? Personally, I love this idea of fragmented moments, because that’s all these brain-damaged people have—that’s what we all have: a string of moments. Some are longer and a little bit more tightly woven together. He would weave pages of moments from the past and then with the accuracy of a doctor he would diagnose the problem at the end of it or explain why his family acted the way he did. He was almost the personal doctor/historian of the family, cataloguing their actions (from what he remembered) and giving them justification.

I feel that Skloot really took a dynamic, shattered it and froze it in time. You see how a son’s memory and life is “changed” by a virus; how a mother copes with her existence by confabulating a life of “royalty,” how a father is starved of love; and a brother is ignored and ignores his own health. They were all starved of the lives they wanted. They were “together without togetherness,” (126). It’s hard to tell if illness took that away from them or their own devices did. Opinions?

As a final point, this is something that has been interesting me. Has anyone else noticed that in many of the books we’ve read so far about the deterioration of disease, the author tends to deconstruction words down to their etymological basis? To their root words? Take page 21 for example when he breaks down the word “dementia.” This is only one example of several that we’ve seen over the past few weeks. Can you name any others? In this book even? What do you feel is the writerly effect of such a thing? Is it to run words on a parallel basis with a patient, to strip them of added components that time gave them? Can you find any truth in that statement? Simply to fill space? What?

Thanks for stopping by,


Madeline said...

I was a bit frustrated by Skloot's failure to provide any explanation of his disease beyond the fact that it was a virus and it resulted in an "insult" to his brain. He doesn't even give us the name of the virus.

Although I was curious about this the whole time, I can't say that knowing the name of the virus or more about it would change my understanding of the book. It really doesn't matter what happened to Skloot, just how it affects him. I'm not sure it would have made any difference if the "insult" to Skloot's brain had been made by a bullet or alcohol poisoning or anything else.

I was BOWLED OVER by the descriptions of Skloot's mother. What a nutcase! I'm studying Alzheimer's for my conference project, and Elizabeth told me that I might find the parts on Skloot's mother interesting. I certainly did. They were certainly relevant to discussions we've been having about the constancy of personality in Alzheimer's and other degenerative diseases. Although Lillian cannot recall the names of her husbands, can't say where she is, and doesn't seem to know the difference between past and present, she is clearly the same person she always was. That is to say, nutty.

But more specifically, she still has her wild, demanding, and confabulatory personality. Some of the ways it gets expressed has changed, but she has not. Although she no longer abuses Skloot, she still takes a lot out of him. I'm thinking of the plane ride to Oregon. The questions she asks: "Who are you? Who is that person? Are you married? Did I come to the wedding?" are certainly expressions of her personality. My grandmother, who also has Alzheimer's, has memory problems perhaps equally as grave as Lillian's. But my grandmother has never asked questions like that. A quiet, unobtrusive person her entire life, she pretends to know things and remains quiet rather than boggle people with questions. She is not prone to wild or "demented" behavior. Her friends used to nag and harrass my mom for putting her in a nursing home, because to them, my grandmother simply didn't seem sick. A person like Lillian, who asks questions like, "Who are you?" of her own relatives, seems sick. But both have been equally stricken by disease.

Back to the things Elizabeth wrote in her post - I am enjoying hearing the story of brain disease from the sufferer himself. However, the change in the narrator's perspective causes me to ask new questions. I no longer have to question whether the patient's feelings are being accurately represented; of course they are, since the patient is telling the story. But there are still issues of "unreliable" narrating. Skloot, for example, focuses much of his attention on the effect his disease has had on himself, and not on his family members. I wondered - who took care of him after his disease and before he met Beverly? What is it like for Beverly to have a disabled husband? What was it like for Phillip to see his brother become disabled, as a disabled person himself? Obviously, Skloot can't give definitive answers to all of these questions, but he doesn't seem to spend much time thinking about the experiences of those around him in relation to his disease.

Madeline said...

Oops, Matt, for some reason I thought your post was written by Elizabeth. Sorry! It's just you write really well.

Molly said...

Hi Matt,
I found your posting very important and enlightening. It is key to have the questions that you have presented and I found some of them similar to what I had thought. When Skloot writes "In the Shadow of Memory", it is such a feat. Not only because his memory is so intermittent, but also because it is an informative and thoughtprovoking piece of fiction. I say fiction most readily because of the questions that Matt brings up. It is easy to bring up memories that are not memories at all, merely ideas of situations that we feel we need to integrate into story telling.
In a test of differences "The Missing World" is extremely different from "In the Shadow of Memory" not only through the narrative but the material. Livesey really makes it the text and writing of the characters, whereas Skloot owns each and every thought. I also found his writing hopeful. Because he lived such an active life whilst being 'normal' he is able to realize the aspects in life he might be missing out on now, but how to find an alternative nature of finding the same, and if not more happiness.
In the chapter in "Synaptic Self" LeDoux writes about the struggles they first had in creating amnesia in animals, H.M. having such a severe case of amnesia it was only in animals that his damage could be reciprocated and studied.

Lauren S said...

As a writer and an editor, I found aspects of Skloot's "memoir" frustrating. In the title essay he tells us, "My personal past, what is referred to as episodic memory, is not totally gone, but large pieces of it are" (p. 30). So how can I trust him as the narrator of his own life history? Even with the understanding that all memoir involves some amount of imagination, Skloot goes on to tell us detailed stories of his childhood that I just can't believe--given his description of his memory--he truly remembers. Memory--and memoir--may be more about perception than fact, and I guess I can accept that this is a valid account of how he perceived his youth, but it all still leaves me feeling a little wary.

(Perhaps I would be less bothered by the issue of believability if not for other red flags in the text, such as: on p. 30 he says his procedural memory "seems fairly intact" and only four pages later writes, "So not only is my memory for naming unreliable, my memory for doing is compromised as well"; p. 228, where he writes, "I find myself helping to stabilize my own memories, working past those awful ones that survived the viral damage to my brain because they were kept in a deeper vault," the metaphor of brain as vault struck me as jarring and incorrect after his earlier medical accuracy; he admits early on that he can't drive in traffic, especially when he has to carry on a conversation, yet says on page 231 that he is driving his rambling mother from her home on Long Island to JFK airport, probably some of the most stressful driving in the country; the assertion on p. 224 that "As people age, they often become distilled versions of themselves," followed, on p. 241, with the statement that "And yet my mother, always so enraged, so aggressive and haughty, always plotting and scheming, was now so pleasant that those who spent time with her never failed to remark it"; and finally, while repetition is a quality shared by almost all the people we have studied--those with memory deficits and mnemonic S--this feels less to me like a cohesive whole and more of a collection of essays--with commonalities--put together, without Skloot or an editor ever going back to see if some information, said once or twice before, did not need to be repeated.)

I think the most interesting idea in SHADOW was that Skloot's childhood abuse could have changed his brain in a way to make it more susceptible to the virus that damaged it, which reminded me of earlier LeDoux readings. This week's chapter of SYNAPTIC SELF gave me the humorous idea that every single thing we learn is based on fear: we learn to walk properly because it hurt when we fell and we don't want that to happen again; we learn to tie our shoes out of fear of ridicule; we learn arithmetic so that the teacher won't yell at us, etc.

Finally, I hope that in chapters 8-22 of THE MISSING WORLD Hazel either gets her memory back or learns the truth about her past because Jonathan is making me really uncomfortable.