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Lyrical Language and Vivid Recall in Memoir of Stroke and Recovery

Book of the Month: November 2015

BOTM-BLOG-BAN-OneHundredNames-600x460-150115Recovering from any physical setback takes hard work and patience. Progress may be slow and frustrating, caregiver demands can be high, and the effort required to restore physical strength can cause discomfort, exhaustion, or both. For cases of brain injury, such as stroke, a person’s setbacks may be cognitive as well as physical. One common effect is difficulty with speech and language, a condition known as aphasia, which affects an estimated 25% to 40% of patients who survive a stroke.

For one couple, writers Paul West and Diane Ackerman, words formed the basis of their professional and personal lives together. Our book for November is Ackerman’s literary account of her husband’s stroke, learning to cope with his aphasia, and their efforts to restore him to writing and word play over years of hard-fought recovery.

One Hundred Names for Love follows a timeline beginning with Paul’s stroke during a hospital stay and covering the next five years of recovery and adjustment. In the hours and days after the stroke, Ackerman uses meticulous detail to describe her mental state — her poet’s sensibility showing in phrases that grow more ornate with heightened emotions. She reconstructs nearly every interaction with her husband, who at first understands very little and can only speak one repeated syllable. Early therapy sessions aggravate him and only seem to reveal the depth of the impediment: Paul is described as having ‘global aphasia,’ sapped of his ability to understand language, put his thoughts into words, speak intelligibly, or even write his name.

The specific nature of Paul’s work and character, namely his affinity for language, has a major influence on Ackerman’s account of his slow progress toward recovery. He flounders during speech therapy exercises because the simple word won’t come to him, but a dozen arcane synonyms will. His annoyance at feeling infantilized sparked Ackerman to tailor additional work to his strengths as a wordsmith, and the book relaxes into an exploration of their collective road blocks and curious successes. The author’s voice, an isolated ‘I’ at first, evolves into a stronger ‘we’ as Paul grows more adept at expressing himself — and she learns how to interpret his every turn of phrase.

For caregivers working closely with a loved one after stroke, One Hundred Names for Love is not specifically instructive, but it does demonstrate how adaptation and continued effort can help bridge frustrating communication gaps. Ackerman does include an illustrative postscript that summarizes several tested therapies for aphasia that the author and her husband had stumbled upon organically, such as talking to Paul to immerse him in words, and drawing out his creativity. However, even for friends and family not involved with day-to-day stroke recovery, this book offers an empathetic look into the world of aphasia; the tactics may change, but communication can indeed continue.

One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, a Marriage, and the Language of Healing
Diane Ackerman
W.W. Norton & Company
336 pages; $26.95