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by Thomas Debaggio
Touchstone, 2002
Review by Kevin Purday on Jul 6th 2002

Losing My Mind

Some books impart information, some give advice, some entertain, while some books open a window onto the innermost thoughts and deepest feelings of a fellow human being. This book most definitely falls into that last category.

Thomas DeBaggio’s paternal grandfather was born in Friuli, Italy, and emigrated as a boy together with his father to America. Along the way his name was Americanized from Di Biasio to DeBaggio. We pick up the story of both sets of grandparents in fragments throughout the book. The fragmentation is part of the story that the book sets out to tell because in 1999, at the age of fifty-seven, Thomas DeBaggio was diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s. He had been a professional herb-grower for twenty-four years and was looking forward to the autumn of his life when he realized that his memory was faltering. He could no longer recall the names of herbs he used to know well. Nor could he remember the names of friends he had not seen for a while. He mentioned the problem to his doctor who referred him to a specialist. He underwent a full neuropsychological evaluation. At his next visit to the specialist he was told bluntly, “You have Alzheimer’s.”

Picture yourself in his place – fit and externally very healthy after a lifetime of having nothing worse than the odd cold – being told out of the blue that you have Alzheimer’s. I am exactly the same age now as Thomas DeBaggio was at the time of the diagnosis and my sympathy for him was compounded with fear for myself.

Thomas DeBaggio’s story is of how he coped with this catastrophic news. Should he join a programme testing Alzheimer drugs? No. He had always wanted to be a writer and, in addition to being a journalist for many years, had in fact written three books about herbs. Now he had, as he puts it, not a hell of a story but “a story of hell” to tell.

The book has three themes. The first is what he calls his “Baby Book”. This is made up of extracts from his long-term memory going back to his earliest childhood days and continuing into his thirties. These appear in short bursts rather like flashbacks. They represent those patches of sunlight that for all of us illuminate parts of our early years. For Thomas DeBaggio these rays of light are particularly important because he knows that his memory is what, in a very real sense, holds him together and he delights in using his long-term memory while he can. We learn about both sets of grandparents, his lawyer father and teacher mother, his schooldays, his forays onto the dance floor with a red-hot dusky beauty, his job as a newspaper boy, his dropping out of college, meeting the woman who was to become his wife, the birth of their son and his years as a reporter on various newspapers. The “Baby Book” more or less ends as he leaves journalism to take up herb-growing.

The second theme is more contemporary but still fragmentary – it is the story of the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, how he coped with it, how he decided to tell all his friends and customers, the sympathy and attempts at good advice he received, his problems with the drugs regime and, most importantly for us the readers, how he personally coped with the memory lapses and the subsequent speech problems and the humiliation they entailed. These fragments are poignant and full of humility. He mentions the terrible diarrhoea that was an unwanted side-effect of the drugs; there is an account of how he accidentally overdosed and how his wife cared for him; there is a mini story of how he walked to a local shop and then failed to work out how a photocopier worked; and there are many snippets about losing and finding things as well as words. In all of this he is deeply aware of the enormous burden of care that he has unwittingly placed upon his wife, Joyce.

The third theme is made up of extracts from recent Alzheimer’s research explaining the causes of the disease insofar as we know them, describing the course which the disease takes and bringing us up to date with current findings. This theme is useful for our understanding but its impact is limited by comparison with the emotional force of the other two themes.

All three themes are deliberately intercut or “multilayered” as Thomas DeBaggio puts it. The effect is at first rather off-putting but it is not just an artifice but an attempt to show how Alzheimer’s digs holes in the memory and produces a patchy network of light and dark and of long-term and more immediate memories.

This is a deeply moving book. It is also, I warn you, a very disturbing one. Alzheimer’s can strike some people in their thirties or forties. For all of us it is a real possibility and, as the average age of death increases, a growing possibility. It is a very humbling experience to read a first-hand account from someone undergoing the ordeal of knowing that Alzheimer’s is the beginning of the end. This book, like the rosemary he used to grow, is for remembrance.

 

© 2002 Kevin M. Purday

Kevin M. Purday is the head of an international school in Jordan, and is currently a distance learning student on the Philosophy & Ethics of Mental Health course in the Philosophy Dept. at the University of Warwick.




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Affirmation Center
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