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In her memoir, "Memory's Last Breath," Gerda Saunders reports on her life's most extraordinary journey: her clear-eyed steps into dementia.
The book (with its astonishing subtitle: "Field Notes on My Dementia") is a literary achievement in the way it blends meditations on memory and identity with brain science, rooted by the writer's anthropologic jottings of daily misadventures from her befuddled brain.
Saunders will launch the memoir with two Salt Lake City events, a reading at The King's English Bookshop on Thursday and another at Art Access on June 29. (See box for details.)
In 2010, just days before her 61st birthday, Saunders was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, specifically microvascular disease. "I was as my rather blunt neurologist put it already 'dementing,' " she writes in the book's opening chapter, "Telling Who I Am Before I Forget." "I was unaware the word had a verb form: I dement, you dement, he/she/it dements, they dement, we all dement."
"Each person, I believe, has their own way of working through grief and doubt and, especially, difficulties with their identity. For me, that place has always been writing," says Saunders, who published a collection of fiction while earning a Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Utah in the 1990s. She retired in 2011 as the associate director of the U.'s Gender Studies Program.
After her diagnosis, she began writing field notes as an act of self-preservation. "Who can I be when this intellect that I built a lot of my identity on is taken away? What can be left?"
One of the writer's aims for "Memory's Last Breath" is to marry her "dementing" self with memories of her former selves. The book also includes an arc of biography, celebrating the life she built with her husband, Peter, the love of her life. In 1984, the South African natives transplanted themselves and their two children to become Utah immigrants, and eventually, U.S. citizens.
She even crafted a character for her episodes of befuddlement, Doña Quixote, a madwoman on a quest for truth. (Through the magic of Photoshop, her husband has made the character appear in a photograph on her blog.)
The memoir has sparked notice in early reviews for its singularity (Andrew Solomon), "evocative writing" (Publishers Weekly) and its "richly textured" narrative and unsparing voice (Kirkus).
Some Utah readers have been following the story through Saunders' blog and a beautiful series of videos produced by KUER's VideoWest. In considering her illness in such an unsparing way, it is as if the Utah writer is donating her consciousness to literary science.
As her short-term memory has slipped away, the writer resorts to re-reading her book before publicity interviews. "I cannot manage the switch between my head and the practical world anymore," she says.
Her ability to maintain habitual behaviors is gone. "I start with one step of this, and I never get to the second step," she says. "What I see myself doing seems to be how people with attention deficit disorder have described it to me."
Talking about dementia, in all of its forms, may be her last act of advocacy, a writerly last stand. It's a chance to "show people there is life after diagnosis, and demonstrating we can go on and have joy," Saunders says. "Talking about this, in a way, is a huge relief."
'Field Notes on My Dementia'
P Gerda Saunders reads from "Memory's Last Breath."
When • Thursday, 7 p.m.
Where • The King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City
When • Thursday, June 29, 6:30 p.m.
Where • Art Access, 230 S. 500 West, #125, Salt Lake City
More • gerdasaunders.com
Videos • KUER's VideoWest has produced an extraordinary series of short documentaries about Saunders' journey; view them at videowest.kuer.org/gerda