One Hundred Names for Love: A Memoir by Diane Ackerman (2011)
This memoir is like reading chocolate mousse or whatever you adore consuming, while at the same time, being forced to realize the utter fragility of life. Language and love combine in every sentence. A dictionary is helpful because Diane Ackerman and her husband Paul West’s vocabulary is so extensive one must keep up. Their knowledge and use of words is dazzling, essentially out of the realm of a computer’s dictionary. Both are well-established writers in love with writing and one another, and they are truly witty wordsmiths.
Memoir is a genre of non-fiction that offers a slice of the author’s life, a theme or a thread vs. an autobiography of their whole existence. If we consider memoir’s lineage, Gertrude Stein wrote the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933 when really it was Gertrude’s own story she told. Toklas was a front (indeed, she always took care of Gertrude). I mention Stein because she set a precedent. She told her story through her interpretation of Alice’s eyes. In One Hundred Names for Love: A Memoir, Ackerman does the same.
That is, she writes as witness. She writes of her husband’s stroke and the devastation of the man she once knew, and of his heroic resurrection and recreation. His story is her story as she too is recreated. She is forced to shift from playful mate and writer, to caregiver-mate and writer. Many women become caregivers as soon as children arrive. Ackerman and West produced volumes of prose and poetry rather than bundles of baby. The care giving was not parental but that of adoring partners, creative colleagues and muse.
The wonder here is how Ackerman realized that traditional therapies to coach and coerce West’s brain to language were not sufficient. She besieged West, a British Oxford don, with incessant conversation and relevant fill-in-the-blank exercises, thus bombarding his global aphasia with words and stimulation that would arouse his curiosity. She encouraged him to write about his experience, and he accepted the challenge. That, and a swimming pool and patience were the healing combination. Ackerman learned to listen, knew her husband well enough to decipher his meaning, listened and loved him enough to laugh with him as his words danced with a new twist. He could remember language learned as an adult –words so obscure even Ackerman had to look them up — but not the immediate ones most of us use daily.
West’s memoir of his early aphasic months, The Shadow Factory, was published just two years after his massive stroke. He describes the indescribable—suddenly being globally aphasic. “Mem, mem, mem” (the only thing he could utter at first) is an excerpt available in The American Scholar (Summer 2007) (http://theamericanscholar.org/mem-mem-mem/). I have to suspend my inherent demands for logic while reading his essay, just go with his existential, poetic free-reign, and I’m rewarded with insight into an otherwise unfathomable realm.
Ackerman’s memoir is divine linguistic artistry, word combinations as beautiful as any rainbow, any recipe for a dish that melts in your mouth (oh mousse). But the story is as astounding as the prose. The brain damage is so severe a doctor reading CAT scan years later is in awe West wasn’t in a vegetative state. Having listened to Ackerman’s descriptions of West’s accomplishments, that doctor said “I’m so glad you told me this about him. It’s important to know what’s possible” (p. 294).
Diane Ackerman writes as a guide to the intimate universe of a stroke. Her husband is speechless, a wordsmith without words, who utters only “mem” with a variety of tone and inflection. The relearning of language and physical skill is tedious, repetitive, ceaseless and also joyous and funny. The word mistakes heard with loving ears, sheer poetry. For instance, “No, a tiny zephyr roamed through the yard for about a minute and a half and it felt good,” meant the breeze was nice (p. 141). But the poet in Ackerman is delighted, which sustains her commitment to his recovery and their life together. The woman West calls, “Lovely Ampersand of the Morning” has written the ultimate love story of her husband’s recovery. It was only with her intimate knowledge of brains (she was on tour with The Alchemy of Mind when a health crisis prior to the stroke brought her home), her insight into language and her dedication to finding creative therapy for West that kept her spirits and self intact for the long recovery.
“Life is a thing that mutates without warning, not always in enviable ways. All part of the improbable adventure of being alive, of being a brainy biped with giant dreams on a crazy blue planet” (90).
Life is an improbable adventure. Ackerman, and West, provide intimate insight into the fierce world of caregivers, global aphasia and poetic passion, the latter illustrated by a terrific list of one hundred endearments so generously offered at the end of the book. I’ll try one here, then I think I’ll send it to my own sweetheart: Hi Honey, my “Baby Angel with the Human Antecede Within,” how’s your day been?