“One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing”
By Diane Ackerman. W.W. Norton & Co., 322 pages.
Available from A Cappella Books.
It is possible to forget how to sit down. It is possible to forget how to comb your hair. It is possible to open your mouth with an urgency to speak and find that no words come out, only strangulated sounds. All these things happen to septuagenarian Paul West, husband of naturalist and acclaimed writer Diane Ackerman, after he suffers a stroke that lays waste to portions of his left brain.
“One Hundred Names for Love” is Ackerman’s absorbing memoir of her husband’s baffling illness and her improvisation of therapies that help him recover to a degree doctors never imagined possible. While damage to one’s procedural memory, which controls routine movements such as climbing into bed, is debilitating, it is West’s loss of speech, as Ackerman harrowingly documents, that shakes the very foundations of the self.
Aphasia is the name for his affliction. Ackerman describes it as a sweeping darkness, “a void of language,” that erases his access to words, numbers and even his comprehension of signs like the male and female figures on restroom doors. “Paul, I think, felt monstrous in what had happened to him and out of control,” Ackerman told me last week while she was in town to speak at the Margaret Mitchell House.
Ackerman is a small, spry woman with a cascade of inky black curls that, from a distance, trick you into thinking you’re looking at a young woman. (She is 62 and the author of the best-selling “A Natural History of the Senses” and “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”) We met at her Buckhead hotel — I came upon her just as she was calling me on my cell phone to let me know exactly where she was sitting in the multi-tiered lobby.
This quality of concern and carefulness about details ultimately propels this free-wheeling ex-flower child to take charge of her husband’s therapy. Doctors advised her that her writer husband, a word-loving punster like her, had a three-month window of opportunity to relearn whatever skills he could. Ackerman saw it differently, she told me. “I had just been on a book tour for ‘An Alchemy of Mind,’ a book about the brain, so I knew way too well what had happened to him. There was no cure for this, but there was improvement possible because of what’s called ‘neuroplasticity.’ The brain is very plastic. Very often you can persuade neurons that are being used for some other effort to take over for damaged ones, and that requires an enormous amount of work. Marathon work. But I knew it was possible.”
This possibility requires Ackerman, who had long played the ingénue in the marriage, to develop “parenting skills” toward her formerly powerful, older husband. (Her descriptions of their unfettered life as a childless couple glimmer with a whimsical Peter Pan quality.) West’s illness forces her into a position of responsibility she admits she doesn’t want but accepts out of love. She rearranges the house for her husband’s safety and teaches him how to use a spoon and fork, open a milk carton and step off a curb without tripping. We sympathize when she confesses to an inner tussle between personal ambition and obligation in deciding to postpone completion of a manuscript by a year in order to focus on her husband’s recovery.
Her greatest endeavor becomes to help West, a sometimes cranky patient, regain language with the help of a young nurse. Though words come to him, they are usually the wrong words for the situation. His retrieval system has gone haywire and needs to be reconfigured. Immersing him in a stream of words, talking to him nonstop, constantly repeating the names of everyday objects, very much as one teaches language to a child, Ackerman conveys a sense of the tremendous industry that goes into devoted caregiving. We are close with her as she writes of a dramatic turning point when she witnesses West’s seething frustration with conventional speech therapy and has the insight to create exercises tailored to his interests and linguistic gifts. He is able to recall sophisticated words like “tardigrade,” “postilion” and “tesseract” (“a nonsense word,” the unwitting speech therapist declares), which he learned as an adult, like a second language, but not simple words like “table” and “chair,” which are processed in the damaged key-language areas of the brain. Ackerman develops playful, teasing, fill-in-the-blank exercises (“When hummingbirds fall in love, they ____”) to engage West’s imagination and talent for wordsmithing. Later she encourages him to take on more challenging writing exercises.
Ackerman offers deft insights into the process of language production in the brain, explaining, for instance, that women are indeed more talkative than men because of the greater connectivity between their left and right hemispheres, which both control language. But the strength of her story is its intimate account of a couple’s reckoning with catastrophic illness. Her fear of confronting a bewildered husband in his hospital room, a stranger who can utter only syllables and nonsense words, is palpable when she describes her desperate effort to remain calm in the face of his garbled rage. Much later, at home, West begins to speak in flummoxing non-sequiturs that require her considerable philological skills to decode. He can’t recall her name, but he tells her brightly, “You are the hapax legomenon of my life.” This, she remembers, is a Greek term for a word that occurs only once in the entire written record of a language, and in it she is thrilled to see a metaphor for a wife of 40 years.
Late in the memoir, Ackerman takes us aback with revelations that her brilliant novelist husband, whom she has described all along as her “sweetheart,” the one she snuggles with in bed every morning and loved to “spaniel” with in shafts of light, was given to violent bursts of temper before his illness, frequently reducing her to tears. “For years of our marriage, I’d walked on eggshells around him,” she suddenly declares. When I asked her about this in person, she replied that the stroke had made her husband a happier man. “It made him so appreciative of me and of life, and happy to be alive. It … actually brought us a lot closer together.”
The darker notes about marriage unsettle Ackerman’s smooth prose, which sometimes gives the impression of gliding too rosily over difficulties, making everything seem possible if there’s enough sweetness to go around. The dark notes reek of a reality that does not conform to one’s hopes. They make West’s gains over the five years the memoir covers — publishing several novels, contributing essays to literary journals — seem all the more astounding, because we realize that his wife has let go of past hurts to help remake him.