- On Love, Language, and Loss
How do we know what other people think, except through language? How do we know them, if they cannot express what they think or feel? Such are the predicaments that these writers address, as they explore how brain injury can affect a relationship, a life.
Aphasia is a communicative disorder experienced by an estimated 1 million Americans (aphasia.org). Its causes can be varied—a stroke (Ackerman), [End Page 189] an injury sustained in a fall (Shulman), a brain tumor (Cogdill), or Alzheimer’s (Genova). It wears many faces: aphasic individuals can experience difficulty speaking (expressive aphasia) or understanding what others say (receptive); they may have trouble saying nouns or names (anomia). Whatever the variation, though, aphasia causes angst for both patient and caregiver. For the aphasic person, the words and ideas are “in there”—he knows what he wants to express, but he cannot access them—a phenomenon most poignantly portrayed by Ackerman, whose husband can only say the word “Mem” after his stroke. Imagine the frustration for both parties: the injured person trying to speak, the caregiver trying to understand. Through memoir and fiction, these four books ask what it is like to care for someone with aphasia, and conversely, what is it like to be an aphasic. Underneath throbs a central irony, for each author is writing a book on behalf of a silenced other. Using the very thing—language—that the aphasic has lost, these writers provide heartbreaking stories about caregiving and loss.
The first three writers use forms of the personal essay—with its concomitant exploration of self and others, its use of exposition and narrative. Writing from the caregiver’s perspective, Ackerman, Shulman, and Cogdill depict the frustrations that ensue when a disease so compromises human communication. Both parties must work hard to connect. At one point, Cogdill describes her attempt to understand her husband, John, this way: “What do you get when you cross charades with Pictionary, MapQuest, What’s My Line, and the Internet???? 2 hours with John, trying to figure out the name of a store” (97). Despite all the caregiver’s shared memories and contextual knowledge of her loved one, communication is still vexed. Ackerman admits that as her husband, Paul, begins to “heal,” the couple’s process of finding the needed words can take as long as a half hour, and her success at guessing what he means is further complicated by his tendency, as a former scholar-writer, to use arcane words: the medieval word screed, for example, as a substitute for writing. Shulman also describes the obstacles that her husband’s language deficits bring, and how Scott’s slip-ups with language sometimes end in moments of shared hilarity, as for instance, when he substitutes dairy for diary, and then playfully follows up by riffing on his own “error” (“Because I gave her a cow”).
For Ackerman and Shulman, the personal essay provides a way to mourn the past. The aphasic’s loss translates as their own; each writer bemoans both [End Page 190] her caregiving present and the dark future ahead. Paul’s stroke and subsequent aphasia mean that Ackerman has lost the omnipresent punning and the back-and-forth exchange of books-in-process that used to characterize their relationship. The two of them once shared a house “saturated in wordplay,” and actually, Ackerman’s book title is a reference to the hundred diminutives that Paul used for her over the years (a list appears at...