Dementia, Identity and Self-Reckoning: Gerda Saunders on Thursday's Access Utah

Jul 20, 2017

Gerda Saunders was diagnosed with dementia at the age of 61 and made an effort ever since to record her experiences in a collection of "field notes," which she published into a memoir.
Credit Slate.Com

In her memoir, "Memory's Last Breath: Field Notes on My Dementia,” Gerda Saunders writes: “When I was diagnosed with early- onset dementia just before my sixty- first birthday in 2010, I kept my hurt, anger, fear, and doubts under wraps. I had no choice. I had a job, a husband, children, grandchildren, friends. I had a life. However, there is nothing like a death sentence—  in my case, the premature death of my  mind—  to provoke questions about life. What, actually, is memory, personality, identity? What is a self? Will I still be (have?) a self when my reason is gone? For me, the place to work out such questions has always been in writing. From that place of self- reckoning, then, came this book.”

“In July  2011—  nine months after my  diagnosis—  when I retired from my position as the associate director of the Gender Studies Program at the University of Utah, my colleagues gave me a beautiful  leather- bound journal as a goodbye present. I took to jotting down notes in it about my daily  misadventures—  pots on the stove boiling dry, washing my hair twice in an hour, forgetting to bake a casserole I had prepared the night before. With a wink at my background in the sciences, I called my journal Dementia Field Notes: I would be an anthropologist, assigned to observe one member of a strange tribe, the Dementers. Like a true scientist, I would be objective. No whining, wailing, or gnashing of teeth. Just the facts. A month or two into my “objective” writing, I also started to write a personal narrative about my dementia. Objectivity be damned…”

“Memory’s Last Breath” captures Saunders’ experience as a fiercely intellectual person living with the knowledge that her brain is betraying her. Her book constitutes an important contribution to the writing on dementia, a diagnosis one in nine Americans will receive.

Gerda Saunders joins Tom Williams for the hour Thursday on Access Utah.