When it became clear that Bloom’s husband had Alzheimer’s and not just a case of Mild Cognitive Impairment, he insisted that he’d “rather die on my feet than live on my knees, “and it became Bloom’s job “to figure out how.” Her powerful, clear-eyed, and often remarkably funny memoir reports the inexorable stages of this terrifying disease and the attendant magical thinking, along with the couple’s somewhat race-the-clock efforts to let Brian exit while still the “loving, goofy, candy-sharing, soft-touch Babu” they wanted the grandchildren to remember. Bloom quickly exhausted the possibilities of U.S. right-to-die laws, frustrated at the deliberately narrow provisions of physician-assisted suicide, which didn’t match their goals at all. A better fit was with the Swiss organization, Dignitas, which offers “accompanied suicide” for those wishing to escape old age, or terminal illness, or some unbearable pain or disability. Since 1988 it has helped more than 3,000 end their lives as they wished. In what is at once a victory and a loss, Bloom’s husband met the stringent requirements—“sad…kinda angry...but not afraid.”
Casey’s unsettling book juxtaposes—and questions the nature of—fiction and fact for a moving consideration of the women inmates of the Paris Salpêtrière psychiatric hospital. The official documentation of photos, case histories, and diagnoses reduces the women to the fulfilled expectations of hysteria—contractions of the limbs, paralysis, rhythmic chorea, and “violent emotions,” while, by contrast, Casey’s invented narratives detail the experiences of individuals variously born in poverty, abandoned by fathers, given up by mothers, abused by employers, and—literally—inscribed with the name of the hospital by the doctors who exhibited as much as studied them. And who never cured or released them. Unlike Casey who, in giving them voices and endowing them with a skilled novelist’s lyrical, rhythmic language—“when I broke every plate in the furrier’s house, the sound glittered like the sea”—has arguably done both, even as she also shows that this 19th-century malady exists on a continuum with martyred saints, burned witches, and today’s chronic fatigue patients.
Davis opens her haunting memoir with “Time Passes,” and as this homage to Woolf’s To the Lighthouse reflects, her book is at once a meditation on art, an exploration of a marriage, and an effort to shore up the slippery banks of memory. Written with the clarity and force of a lucid dream, these myriad short chapters land variously in Brigadoon, the tales of Hans Christian Andersen, the Buddhist Bardo, Beethoven, camping trips, high school, and more, before each returns Davis—perhaps fortified by the excursion to a past self, perhaps not—to the central trauma of her recent widowhood. But whether delving into key moments that shaped her or examining the shock of new loss, Davis writes in sharp, often breathtaking prose that pushes the boundaries of understanding —a stranger’s voice “registered not on my ears but on my frontal lobe,” a ghost stands “in a pillar of light you saw without your eyes the same way I heard the lake without my ears”—and packs a visceral punch: “there is the moment you step off the edge of the cliff before you hit the ground….this moment can last a second or it can last a lifetime”