The Geography of Memory

memoryIn The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer’s, Jeanne Murray Walker describes her mother’s progression through Alzheimer’s Disease and the way in which that process illuminated and gave context to Walker’s own memories.

I recently read a fascinating article about how we can’t trust our memories and why.  It’s amazing how the memories we most fiercely believe are true are often demonstrably false, at least in part.  As I read Walker’s memoir, I often wondered how these events must have played out from her sister’s perspective.

During her mother’s illness, Walker lived in Philadelphia while her younger sister lived in Dallas, where their mother lived.  Walker sees herself as a caretaker, remarking again and again how she has flown halfway across the country, five or six times a year, and washed her mother’s laundry or packed up boxes.  Meanwhile, her sister, who also has a full-time job and family responsibilities, is passed over although her caretaking duties as the local child must have been immeasurably more involved and more burdensome.

I often felt annoyed on behalf of the younger sister, and even on behalf of their mother, who was subjected to Walker’s tendency to swoop in like she knows what’s best when she’s actually quite out of the loop.  However, while I didn’t find Walker to be a very likeable narrator, this is her memoir, and she is certainly entitled to write about her experiences dealing with a parent’s aging even from a distance.

Walker’s method of using her mother’s fading memories to examine how her own recollections shaped and impacter her understanding of herself, her parents, and her role in the family is well conceived and well done.  If you take the book more as a memoir and an examination of memory, and less as a book about what Alzheimer’s is like, it comes across better.  However, I still have some trouble recommending it, because I didn’t honestly like the book very much.

My grandmother has Alzheimer’s and I picked up the book thinking it would be insightful as to her condition.  It wasn’t.  I’m relieved that my mom and her siblings seem to be better at communicating than Walker and her sister were, but I’m sure that nothing really prepares you for someone you love leaving before they leave.  If you’re interested in Alzheimer’s, you might do better reading Still Alice (link is to my review).  Although it’s a fictional account, Still Alice does a better job of explaining and exploring the disease and its impact, whereas The Geography of Memory is ultimately much more about Walker than about the disease.

If you’ve read anything on the subject, what books on Alzheimer’s would you recommend?


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