Memoir traces the small miracles of healing

  • Article by: KATHRYN LANG , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 4, 2011 - 11:13 AM

REVIEW This poignant and informative memoir tells of writer/naturalist Diane Ackerman's struggle to help her husband regain his life - and language skills - after a devastating stroke.

"One Hundred Names for Love" by Diane Ackerman

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In "One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, a Marriage, and the Language of Healing" (W.W. Norton, 336 pages, $26.95), author/poet/naturalist Diane Ackerman describes the aftermath of her husband Paul West's massive stroke, their joint struggle to regain his ability to communicate and the bittersweet victories they wrest by tapping into new regions of his damaged brain.

West was 75 when the "lightning strike" left him with global aphasia, unable to process language. He'd suffered so much damage to the left frontal and temporal areas of the brain that doctors looking at West's brain scan said he'd most likely remain in a permanent vegetative state. West had been an Oxford standout, a cricket player, RAF officer and author of 51 books. He'd also been Ackerman's literature professor at Penn State in the early 1970s. They'd been together 35 years, sharing a love of wordplay, reading each other's manuscripts, creating esoteric pet names for each other.

At the beginning, West's only utterance was the syllable "mem." He was unable to use a spoon, brush his teeth, button his shirt. Determined to defy the grim prognosis, Ackerman set out to find ways to harness the brain's plasticity, to help West's damaged brain forge new pathways and create new connections.

Ackerman hired a nursing student who became teacher, companion and literary assistant to West. Small miracles occurred as both women engaged him in conversation therapy. With immense effort and fierce discipline, West gradually began to use words, albeit recondite and unusual ones, relearned basic life skills and ultimately dictated "The Shadow Factory," a memoir about his stroke, the first of many publications to come.

Slowly Ackerman and West began to achieve a semblance of their former lives: Five years after his stroke, he haltingly is able to create new endearments for his wife -- My Celandine Hunter and Lovely Ampersand of the Morning, to cite just two of them. In addition to what Ackerman calls "aphasic telegrams from his phoenix-feathered brain," West has even started making puns again. Though their life today is shadowed by worry, it's full and joyful. A few years into their shared trauma, West, realizing how tough the ordeal has been for her, tells Ackerman he should "leave ... and furlough your life back." But she refuses the offer, saying: "We're joined at the heart." In her typically metaphor-drenched language, Ackerman says they now "unwrap one day at a time, treating it as a star-spangled gift."

Ackerman's postscript describes 11 "lessons learned" -- ignoring timetables, using circumlocution and constraint-induced therapy, for example -- and offers advice and hope to other families dealing with the devastation of a stroke. In addition to listing their 100 names for love, Ackerman includes several pages of further reading.

Kathryn Lang is former senior editor at Southern Methodist University Press. Her father suffered a debilitating stroke that left him aphasic a dozen years ago. He, too, has been able to relearn to speak.

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