Independent Book Group: The painful memoir of a dutiful daughter

Charlotte O'Sullivan ponders the irony of Book 2, The Story of My Father
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When Simone de Beauvoir wrote A Very Easy Death - a superbly savage account of her ageing mother's struggle with cancer - she gave birth to a new genre: a brand of memoir best described as care'n'tell. Such as-they-lay-dying missives can be produced by sons or husbands (remember Iris?), but daughters corner the market. Most recently, we've had Linda Grant's Remind Me Who I Am, Again and Sue Miller's The Story of My Father. Both are concerned with Alzheimer's, or the separate but related disease of multi-infarct dementia; both interweave a smattering of science with family history. What sets Miller's book apart is its self-conscious rigour. The title is ironic: she knows this is as much her story.

When Simone de Beauvoir wrote A Very Easy Death - a superbly savage account of her ageing mother's struggle with cancer - she gave birth to a new genre: a brand of memoir best described as care'n'tell. Such as-they-lay-dying missives can be produced by sons or husbands (remember Iris?), but daughters corner the market. Most recently, we've had Linda Grant's Remind Me Who I Am, Again and Sue Miller's The Story of My Father. Both are concerned with Alzheimer's, or the separate but related disease of multi-infarct dementia; both interweave a smattering of science with family history. What sets Miller's book apart is its self-conscious rigour. The title is ironic: she knows this is as much her story.

James Nichols was diagnosed with "probable Alzheimer's disease" in 1986, several years after the death of his wife - the charismatic, depressive, would-be poet with whom Miller had been competing for most of her life. At last, thought Miller, she could have her gentle, reasonable, religious father all to herself - and the dream came true, albeit with a twist.

Nichols was placed in a nursing home, 40 minutes from Miller's home in Boston. But, distressed, disorientated and increasingly aggressive, he failed to see his daughter as a Cordelia-like saviour. More often than not, she found herself being cursed as an unfeeling monster. In fact, the woman he fell for was his nurse (he decided they were married, and began to insist on conjugal rights). And even when he did express love for Miller, it came second-hand. On one visit, he insisted that she take down a message "for the one we know as Sue".

One could argue that such heart-wrenching confusions take place daily in retirement homes across the globe, and that the only thing that made this old man special is that he had a writer in the family. Ordinary people aren't asked to document the disintegration of loved ones; fiction writers and/or journalists are. Such narratives, then, are both proof and pudding of the author's off-stage achievements; success stories, running in parallel with evidence of how the body and mind can fail.

The point is that, far from ducking this issue, Miller tackles it head-on. Ego, vanity and the desire for dominance are the "stuff" of her book. Faced with a man who - hearty or decrepit - remained out of reach, she hoped to regain control through writing, the one place where she felt at home. Her final and most generous act of exposure is to admit that such a mission was, and is, impossible.

If there's an Alzheimer's heaven, it's no doubt full of liberated loonies, penning memoirs about the hell of living with the world-bound "sane". Miller is all too aware that she can't tell that story. The text, and subtext, of this memorable essay are that, when it comes to madness and death and dying, writers never have the last word.

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