Diane Ackerman writes about the inner and outer world and has taken on some enormous topics. Her books include “Dawn Light”, a scientific and poetic appreciation of the first hours of the day; “The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral”; “A Natural History of the Senses”, which explored how we see/hear/feel/know the world around us and was made into a PBS science series; “A Natural History of Love” and “An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain”. She is also an op-ed columnist for the New York Times. Diane lives in Ithaca and has become one of America’s best-selling authors, her productivity and creativity nurtured by her author-husband Paul West. Paul is the author of more than two dozen novels as well as poetry and non-fiction; Diane calls him “a born phrasemaker” and remarks that “our household had been saturated with wordplay”.
One of Paul West’s books is the 1995 memoir “A Stroke of Genius: Illness and Self-Discovery” in which he tells of the “weird constellation of my symptoms” from migraines to heart disease to a mild stroke. His health had taken a turn for the worse in June of 2004 when Paul was hospitalized for the installation of a heart pacemaker and was also suffering from a kidney infection. He recovered sufficiently to be released from the hospital and was alone in his room with Diane when he was felled by a massive stroke. Because of the other drugs in his system he couldn’t be safely treated with the powerful anticoagulants that, if applied in time, could reverse the condition. A man considered one of the most creative and prolific writers of his time suddenly lost the power to communicate. His wife, who had clarified for countless readers the workings of the mind, understood too well the nature of this crisis. “In nonretractable moments, whole networks of neurons had died, a lifetime’s verbal skills, knacks, memories.”
The effects of global aphasia reduced Paul’s verbal capacity to a series of monosyllables: “mem-mem-mem”. If possible (and there was no assurance that it was) his brain would have to be retrained. With rehabilitation, professional attention and the ongoing assistance of a loving and resouceful wife he began the effort, and Diane has documented their progress. It wasn’t easy.
“Paul’s sense of identity as a writer and a professor required words. Over a lifetime he’d clung to them for solace, worked them to earn a living, juggled them to express himself, pinned them like butterflies to capture fleeting ideas and feelings. Via letters and phone calls, words always connected him to his family, an ocean away, and to me, whether by his side or at the end of a phone line. Words were how he had always organized his world. He had chosen to live the proverbial “life of the mind” to the exclusion of all else, reserving his energy for writing and for his equally word-passionate wife. Taking words from Paul was like emptying his toy chest, rendering him a deadbeat, switching his identity, severing his umbilical to loved ones, and stealing his manna.”
–from “One Hundred Names for Love”
But with patience, determination and close attention to Paul’s struggles, Diane began to oversee the rewiring of Paul’s brain. His “rowdy family of words” returns, sometimes in a strain and sometimes with the creativity he had shown before. Like many couples, Paul and Diane liked to compose pet names for each other. As his condition improved, Paul drew names from the jumble of his mind that Diane felt she had to catalogue in “One Hundred Names for Love”. Among the 100 listed in an appendix are, “Apostle of Radiant Postage Stamps”, “Parapluie of the Snowy Ecstacy” and “Patient Princess of Ever-afters.” A story that began in tragedy ends with a touch of sweet silliness, and Paul is writing again. Diane also wrote about Paul’s recovery and homecoming in this Times column.
Diane Ackerman joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to speak about “One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, An Illness and the Language of Healing”.