Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Book Notes: Where Memories Go by Sally Magnusson

I first came across this book when I heard the author reading an edited version of it on Radio4.. I was doing something as mundane as driving home with the weekly shopping, but couldn't leave the car until the end of the episode. It is not just that I recognised her voice (she is after all on 'Reporting Scotland' every week), or that one of the first 'proper books' I ever read was her biography of Eric Liddel; my attention was so arrested because this book used the most beautifully moving prose to open up a dark and painful world about which I knew almost nothing.

Magnusson writes as if directly to her mother, the celebrated Scottish journalist Mamie Baird, observing her, as dementia steadily weakens, confuses, frightens, bewilders and detaches her; and finally takes her life. Magnusson writes so well and loads her narrative with such telling recollections and observations that the reader is drawn right into what would otherwise be a very private tragedy. As such it is no easy reading, not because it is academically or intellectually demanding, but because it is so very real. It is always the case that love has the power to amplify loss and this is a book written out of a deep and affecting love. Who cannot help but be profoundly affected when they read that in a rare moment of lucidity her mother says, "I am travelling down a long road away from myself"? Who, but the utterly stone-hearted could fail to ache with empathy when they read of this family saying to their confused and angry Mother, "Why do you have to fight?" to be told "Because that's all I can do now."?

The book skilfully weaves together memories of Mamie Baird in all her vivacious, and eccentric vigour before dementia took her prisoner, with the story of her decline. Alongside this are recorded the reactions and coping strategies of family, friends and carers who struggled to come to terms with the disturbing effects of this ghastly brain disease. What adds an extra dimension to the book though is that Magnusson takes well-informed and highly informative excursions into understanding the physical processes of dementia; savagely critiques much of the care offered to sufferers today, and gropes towards an understanding of the disease which allows her to honour the remaining intact parts of her beloved mother. 

And 'honour' is an important concept here for me. While reading this book, I happened to be helping a local church with some of their Sunday services and we were working through The Ten Commandments. When we reached "Honour your Father and Your Mother" I had always placed an emphasis on the difficulty which following this principle had posed to people who's parents were profoundly dishonourable: the woeful, the negligent and the abusive. I had never really considered what it would mean to act honourably towards parents who are declining, who are on that 'long road away from themselves'.. This book is not just very loving, but also deeply honouring to Magnusson's Mother. What I found most satisfying in that regard was the way in which Sally and her family honoured their Mum, throughout the long ordeal of her illness. They honoured who she now "was", as the same person as who she "used to be". This makes "Where Memories Go" a very sad book indeed; but yet a rather noble one.

Equally fascinating was Magusson's account of the way in which music played a profound role in helping to connect with her Mother deep into the progression of the illness. Mamie Baird had, we read, always loved music and was a singer and mouth-organ player with a large repertoire of songs. These songs played a critical role in connecting, calming and reaching her - sometimes during very dark days indeed. Magnusson's interview with a brain specialist about this power of music is especially insightful. She learns that music contains multiple simultaneous stimuli, (music, lyrics, arrangement, accents) which have been re-enforced by repetition over many years, and that these are powerfully connected to memories. That simultaneous multiple stimuli increases the chances of connectivity through a diseased brain in which so many of the pathways are not functioning. There were times when Sally Magnusson's mother was unable to speak coherently, but could sing old songs. Following this she has set up a charity, "Playlist for Life" facilitating the provision of personally significant music for dementia sufferers - which can be so significant for sufferers and carers alike. Their video follows:

I have not personally encountered dementia of the kind that so damaged Sally Magnusson's mother, and caused so much pain to her and her family. I do have friends who are experiencing this in their parents, and Sally Magnusson's important book has given me far greater insight into the kinds of difficulties, pains, joys and sorrows through which they are now travelling. "Where memories go" is intensely moving, and utterly compelling, quite heartbreaking in the loss it details, yet quite beautifully constructed.

There is a facebook group dedicated to the book available here.

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