I picked up Judith Levine’s new book Do You Remember Me? , with not a little trepidation. She and I share a friend/mentor from City College, and he’d arranged for me to review the book forAmerican Book Review, I’d tried to review her important book Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex , whose exploration of childhood sexuality was overlooked by the media because she dared to raise questions about the true threats posed by child pornography. I was stopped by the onslaught of other media covering the book and by some concerns I had about the writing. In both this and her lesser-known book My Enemy, My Love , Levine relies on pop culture and Internet chat as sources to an extent I wasn’t comfortable with, and used pop-psychology truisms (albeit of the Berkeley variety, words like “wholeness”) when more direct expression would have blown me away. Of course, no one needed me to go find Levine’s book, which justly became a best seller anyway, but that’s why I was nervous as I agreed to review the new book.
I learned pretty quickly that my qualms were completely unearned: the book is fabulous.
Levine’s strengths in joining the personal to the political, evident in the other books, give uncommon heft to this lovely memoir – and in the meantime, she’s also displayed uncommon narrative gifts. I guess her previous subjects –changing gender dynamics, conceptions of child sexuality – only allowed her to give little glimpses of people; here, as she tells the story of her father’s descent into Alzheimer’s, of her relationship with both her parents over 15-plus years, she’s painted scene after scene that draws me in, makes me care and unsettles my conceptions about what this disease means.
The genius here, Levine’s genius, is that the brain and relentless curiosity that powered the other books here takes her story beyond the personal, and makes us think more about the social and philosophical assumptions about aging, dementia, and even cognition. She talks to psychologists and scholars who look beyond biology to examine how the elderly, in modern society, are isolated and marginalized – a phenomenon that can have specific neurological consequences. (Go look up the “social constructionist view of Alzheimer’s.”) She then goes somewhere I’d never have thought to go – to philosophers, to ask the more fundamental questions: Does “self” exist when there’s less cognition? No cognition? Do we need to reconsider Descartes, in order to continue valuing and respecting someone who can no longer manipulate language?
The combination of these questions, explored in conversations with academics and clinicians, and the particulars of the Levine family’s story packs a powerful punch. The social isolation of the elderly? Look at the nursing home in upstate New York where the senior Levines move briefly. Maintaining love when words fail? Watch Judith dance with her dad. The big-picture material firmly prevents the novelistic details from becoming sentimental, while the story provides firm illustration and raises additional questions.
Throughout, Levine’s use of language is the most assured it’s been. I’ve already used this in the classroom, to talk about description (how a character’s clothes, when described, can show changes in their lives) and the use of dialogue in nonfiction. I could, and may still, use it to show how one can avoid clichés and code words. I’m deeply sorry she’s had to contend with her father’s dementia, and happy to report that it seems to have driven her to her best work.
Now, I get to turn the above into a more structured review, with lots of quotes, and get it out the door. I don’t really like that sound of a deadline whooshing by – a sound I heard longer ago than I like to admit.