The Trouble They’ve Seen

The arc of two new memoirs moves from heartbreak to a hard-won affirmation of life.

04/18/2011
Jewish Week Book Critic
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Bad things happen to a lot of people. Some very good books have resulted.

Many fine writers have turned illness, pain and suffering into works of art, spinning stories that are heartbreaking and lyrical and sometimes funny. With their resilient spirit and generous candor, these authors have much to teach us.

Diane Ackerman, author of “One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing” (Norton), has written many books on science and the natural world with a poetic bent, including the best-selling “A Natural History of the Sense” and “An Alchemy of Mind” — and she has the unusual distinction of having a molecule named after her, dianeackerone. Her most recent book was something of a departure; “The Zookeeper’s Wife” tells a little-known story of great heroism during the Holocaust. While her previous books are not autobiographical, the reader comes to know Ackerman’s passion for language and nature, along with her habit of deeply noticing her world.

Soon after the publication of “An Alchemy of Mind” in 2005, she interrupted her book tour when her husband, the professor and author Paul West was being treated in the hospital for a serious kidney infection. During those days she had been thinking and speaking a lot about how the brain works. While she was visiting at the hospital, she witnessed West having a massive stroke. As she writes, the doctor “wrote cryptic notes on a chart in a slow loopy scrawl, the pen scraping like a quill across my jangled nerves.”

The stroke ravaged the left hemisphere of his brain including the key language areas; a particularly cruel irony for a man “with one of the largest working English vocabularies on earth” whose life revolved around words. Their marriage was a “word-drenched companionship,” in which they relaxed with “Cheater’s Scrabble,” playfully talked throughout the day in the home where they each had a writer’s studio (he would make up operettas about her) and read each other’s work. Here’s how she describes his talent: “He had a draper’s touch for the unfolding fabric of a sentence, and he collected words like rare buttons.” In the days after the stroke, he could say only one syllable.

As her husband’s caregiver, Ackerman moves beyond conventional therapy and helps to unlock him and his language, as she understood that the brain is not rigid and unchangeable. She gets some encouragement from neurologist Oliver Sacks who stopped by their Ithaca, N.Y., home while he was visiting Cornell, who manages to get West to sing with him — both men grew up in England and had learned the same songs as kids. With great patience, she teaches West not only to speak again — contradicting the early predictions of doctors — but also to write, as he longed to do. Now, five years after the stroke, his creativity has returned and he has struggled to write three novels and several articles. He is also making some puns again. As she writes, he has “re-loomed vibrant carpets of his vocabulary.”

At times, the author can’t recognize the mind that she knew so well, but she understands that her old spouse is still there, that “a duet between two lovers can endure hardships.” She explains that they have learned not to regard recovery as a process of with set stages, but as something “we unwrap one day at a time, treating it as a star-spangled gift.”

“Life can survive in the constant shadow of illness, and even rise to moments of rampant joy, but the shadow remains, and one has to make space for it,” she writes.

The memoir is so compelling as Ackerman understands so much about the brain and about love, and she writes so well. The title connotes West’s habit of calling his wife by unconventional pet names. After he gained the ability to speak and began to find words again, he was frustrated that he couldn’t remember the old names he had for her. So she encouraged him to make up new ones, and he did, one a day, for 100 days: “Swan Boat of the Imperial Sun” and “She for Whom All Flowers Bloom Early” are among his colorful choices.

In 2004, when I interviewed Ackerman in connection with “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” and asked how that book set during the Holocaust fit in with her other works about the natural world, she replied, “In retrospect, I think that what I’ve been trying to do is put together a mosaic of what it was like to live on this planet, what the experience of being human is like, from birth to death. I love learning about life. I love being alive and all that that entails.”

Ackerman’s book is written in that life-affirming spirit, as is Mindy Greenstein’s new memoir, “The House on Crash Corner … And Other Unavoidable Calamities” (Greenpoint Press). In opening the first of four parts, Greenstein cites a Yiddish proverb, “You can’t control the wind, But you can adjust your sails.”

The book’s title refers to her childhood home, located on a busy Brooklyn corner where, prior to the installation of a traffic light, noisy collisions were not uncommon. But life inside the house was also full of eruptions, as her parents, Holocaust survivors, fought a lot, often about the money they each were losing through their gambling habits and their mounting debt. She observed everything about their family life and records it with no sugar coating, drawing the reader in with her earthy, wise and funny voice.

The book is a series of interconnected essays about growing up and moving on to become a clinical psychologist and psycho-oncologist; she now consults to the psychiatry department at Sloan Kettering. She writes about her mother who had learned six languages from running from the Nazis, but couldn’t spell in any of them. Most mother-daughter shopping outings in Brooklyn included a stop at an Off-Track Betting parlor. Her relatives, the perpetually broke among them, usually arrived unannounced at dinnertime, expecting her mother to wait on them —and she did.

Looking back on difficult times of her childhood, Greenstein writes, “I can’t help feeling proud too, of another moment survived, another crisis coped with. There’s beauty in survival, even in shame. The one reminds you of your strength, the other your hunger, the hunger that makes you sing, the pain that makes you laugh. It took many years for me to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Now, I can’t see it any other way.”

Greenstein also writes of her work counseling cancer victims, her experience as a wife and mother and her training as a prison psychologist, where she learned about guns. And she describes how she dealt with her own diagnosis of breast cancer, how she knew too much to conjure up a can-do attitude — something that eluded her even in the best of times. As she helps others to do, she tries to live in the moment, understanding that “there are moments worth living a lifetime for, no matter what happens next.”

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