Gerda Saunders, Memory's Last Breath: Field Notes on My Dementia (New York: Hachette, 2017), 272pp.
Five days before her sixty-first birthday in 2010, Gerda Saunders was diagnosed with microvascular disease, the second leading cause of dementia next to Alzheimer's. In the words of her neurologist, she was already "dementing." The understandable default response of denial was problematic. Saunders had already noticed troubling signs in herself, plus she had helped her mother deal with a long and harsh form of mental deterioration. She had been a devoted intellectual who loved the life of the mind, and now she faced "the premature death of the mind."
Ten months after her diagnosis with early onset dementia, in August of 2011, Saunders retired from her position as the associate director of the University of Utah's Gender Studies Program. As a goodbye present, her colleagues gave her a leather-bound journal, which she immediately started filling with her daily indignities — "pots on the stove boiling dry, washing my hair twice in an hour, forgetting to bake a casserole I had prepared the night before." She called these entries her "Dementia Field Notes," which, in fact, are sprinkled throughout the text of this memoir.
In addition to documenting her own deep dive into the nature of memory, identity, personality, self-perception, and the nature of the self, Saunders shares the stories of fellow Dementers — her mother, the British novelist Iris Murdoch, and her next door neighbor Bob. She circles back to her childhood memories in South Africa, and shares the results of her self-education in brain science research. This book reminded me of a similar memoir called My Stroke of Insight (2009) by the Harvard neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, who described her life after a massive stroke at the age of thirty-seven (!) left her unable to walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. Taylor was lucky to recover; Saunders has no such expectation, but she does speak at length about the healing powers of love through her husband Peter. You can follow Saunders's latest progress at her website gerdasaunders.com.