Wednesday, February 9, 2011

O Parakeet of the Lissome Star

That is just one of names that Paul West created for his wife Diane Ackerman as a therapy for his damaged brain following a massive stroke. Ackerman, a prolific writer (The Zoo Keeper’s Wife, A Natural History of the Senses, Cultivating Delights, …) and poet, has chronicled the aftermath of the stroke in a forthcoming memoir One Hundred Names for Love.

It is a remarkable story: of a wife’s devotion to her injured husband – and a very painless way to learn a lot of brain science. West was in his mid-seventies at the time of the stroke and already battling diabetes and heart disease. Immediately after the stroke he could manage only one sound: Mem, mem, mem… Over the next five years Ackerman, assisted by an extraordinary therapist, was tireless in her efforts to help West regain his ability to write and speak coherently. Just reading about the struggles is exhausting. But Ackerman is a poet and the language with which she describes their efforts, their small successes, their setbacks is rich and delightful. Because West was an accomplished writer before the stroke, he is especially frustrated by the simplistic exercises put forth as traditional speech therapy. It is Ackerman, the wife who knows him better than anyone else could, who devises exercises like the One Hundred Names (all of which are recorded at the end of this volume).

The science is fascinating…and fun. Has it ever seemed to you that women talk faster than men? “Women can pronounce words faster than men, and utter more sentences in a given amount of time. Maybe because women use both hemispheres to comb through sounds, while men mainly use the left side. With a richer bounty of connections among neurons and a more thickly wired “corpus callosum” zooming traffic between the two hemispheres, the female brain may be better organized for language. Whatever, the reason, females are less prey to stuttering, dyslexia, autism, and other language problems, including aphasia.” Aphasia is the diagnostic term given to West’s condition.

The book will not be released officially until April. I was fortunate to receive an advance reader’s copy for review from the publisher through Reading Group Choices. I hope that somehow each and every one of the caregivers of Gabrielle Giffords, but especially her husband, will receive and read this book. The importance of having a primary caregiver deeply invested in the success of the outcome cannot be overestimated. I hope that none of us has to face such a daunting task – but the odds are that some of us will. This book will give hope and comfort.


  1. Thanks for the review. As a caregiver for an aphasic stroke patient (my dad), I would love to know more about the speech exercises Ms Ackerman used with her husband. We're working with two speech therapists but I would love to know what unique steps she took in working with her husband.

  2. Thanks for the Comment. Tayloring the content of the speech exercises to include subject matter that was of particular interest to the patient (music, gardening, sports, etc.)was key. So too was separating the writing from the speaking so she acted as scribe while he dictated what turned out to be a published memoir from his point of view of his experience.