(Book Review) Memory’s Last Breath: Field Notes on my Dementia by Gerda Saunders

Forgetting Who We Are

A Book Review of Memory’s Last Breath: Field Notes on my Dementia

By Pam Munter

What’s your greatest fear? Speaking in public? Loneliness? Getting hurt? How about losing your mind? How does that fit into your hierarchy? Most of us worry a little when we forget our keys, misplace an item or can’t recall a name. But it’s easily attributable to fatigue, distraction or even age. But what if it’s the beginning of the end?

Though the incidence of dementia is dropping, we know the probability increases with age. The odds of developing it double every five years after 65 but its incidence is less common in those who are younger. With all the research into the various forms of dementia, there is far less known about the cause and progression of the early-onset type. Now we have the in vivo memoir of Gerda Saunders, an articulate academic diagnosed at the age of 60, a woman “who lives and dies by (her) rationality.” Saunders was the Associate Director of the Gender Studies Program at the University of Utah until she retired. She hoped to finish her two novels that were in the works but that will not happen.

Memory’s Last Breath: Field Notes on My Dementia, like the disease that is consuming her, is an intermittent and variable story of coping with the evaporation of the self. Saunders had noticed lapses—losing the thread of a conversation, forgetting the name of the novel she was teaching—and started compensating even before she knew what was wrong by making lists. It’s not her long-term memory that is so obviously slipping but the inability to hold information in her head while she processes it. She puts on only one earring, leaving the room before inserting the other, or walks out of a store forgetting to pay for the items. While it was disturbing to hear her neurologist say she was “already dementing,” she wasn’t surprised.

Most readers will pick up this book expecting to read about her subjective experience. How does it feel to lose yourself? To watch your prized intellectual faculties decline? To be unable to count on oneself to complete even the most basic of tasks? In the most compelling passages, she tells us and it is, of course, painful for her and for us. But then, like her disease, she seems to lose track of what this book is about.

Because it’s a series of essays, the dates are out of order and there are redundancies. A chronological approach would have made it an easier read but it would still lack the sharper focus it needs to be consistently spellbinding.

She (and we) seems distracted when it becomes a dry neurology and neuroscience primer, when she describes and discusses the function of brain lobes, provides endless stories of her childhood in South Africa (perhaps best saved for a different book), writes pages of commentary on favorite sculptures, details the stories of other people’s experience with dementia. We can hardly wait for her to return to her personal, more emotional experience but then, this is a woman who spent years in academic life and trucks in words. She takes pride that there is “No whining, wailing or gnashing of teeth. Just the facts.”

There are many divergent threads here but the book roars back to life when she begins to consider her “planned exit.” At first, she says she wouldn’t involve any of her adult children but recants when she realizes the easiest way to have an assisted suicide would be in Europe. After discussion, she decides differently. “Peter and our children have declared themselves game to undertake the ‘death trip’ to Europe with me.” The lightness of the tone makes it sound more like a family vacation.

An undercurrent of sardonic humor appears in this latter section and it’s an obvious part of the family culture. As they sit around debating what kind of “second wife” would be good for her husband, one daughter says, “We should outsource Dad’s second wife to India.” Another chimes in, “Mom, I think your last testament should require that Dad’s second wife must be older than me.” We wonder how everyone is processing the sadness and there isn’t much evidence of it from Saunders, either, at least, not what one might expect. There’s a curious detachment, as she so frequently segues into intellectual distractions:

“To illustrate the fact that our self is brought into being by the Other, Lacan and other postmodernists refer to a self as a subject rather than as an individual, since the term individual arises in the Renaissance to represent the idea that a person could deliberately fashion his own identity.” The reader wonders if there’ll be a test.

Now, at 67, she recently told NPR interviewer Melissa Block about the impact of the disease’s progression. “You know, my mind drifts. I’m not good at doing my share of the household chores, like, I’m getting worse at it every day.” She told her, “Certainly, my whole path was determined by the fact that I had a good brain to start with…And now this big brain is being eaten away. So what am I now? What will I be?…I felt a strong feeling to understand this disease before a time when I couldn’t understand anything anymore.” It would seem at the end, she cannot help being more subjective, more personal.

Consider the above disclosures compared to some of the last lines in the book: “Imagine: A final forever. And then: no you, no I, no tomorrow, no yesterday, no names, no memory, no molecules; matter itself released into energy, single photons stretched across light-years of space.”

Perhaps we are too selfish to have wanted more from a writer who may be saving the most important parts of herself as long as she can. It’s not easy for any of us to witness that “long goodbye.” We wish her well on the journey.


Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram. She’s a retired clinical psychologist and former performer. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, NoiseMedium, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Litro, Angels Flight—Literary West, TreeHouse Arts, Persephone’s Daughters, Better After 50, Canyon Voices, Open Thought Vortex, Fourth and Sycamore, Nixes Mate, Scarlet Leaf Review, Cold Creek Review, Communicators League, I Come From The World, Switchback, The Legendary and others.

2 comments

  1. Pam Munter’s review of Memory’s Last Breath made me consider the similarities between Gerda Saunder’s book and the progress of the dementia of a dear friend of mine. Like Gerda’s redundancies and her professor’s fallback to intellectual teachings, my pal, who had been a therapist, repeated stories and assumed a “listening manner” even when he had no idea what was being discussed. When he forgot a name or detail, he’d say, “I’m losing my mind,” as a catch phrase, although others knew it to be too true.

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