Book review: Where Memories Go, by Sally Magnusson

Broadcaster Sally Magnusson. Picture: Jane Barlow
Broadcaster Sally Magnusson. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Sally Magnusson’s book about caring for her mother as dementia strikes is deeply moving and inspiring, says David Robinson

Just before Sally Magnusson got married, her mother wrote her a letter. It’s wise, pithy, jokey, serious, moving, brims over with love, and it runs over four pages in the middle of this book about her mother’s dementia, about which every one of those adjectives could also be applied.

Mamie Magnusson. Picture: Contributed

Mamie Magnusson. Picture: Contributed

Read the letter, and those of us who never knew Mamie Magnusson realise immediately that she must have been everything her daughter says she was: vivacious, life-enhancing, witty, and great fun to be around. Legendary Daily Express editor Arthur Christiansen had caught a glimpse of that sparkle when she worked for him in Fleet Street and wanted to keep her there, but Mamie insisted on returning to Scotland. She wasn’t long back in the Express’s Edinburgh office when she met a posh, bearded Icelander fresh out of Oxford who had been expected to marry a Norwegian princess but who now courted her in her working-class parents’ Rutherglen council house instead.

In the letter to Sally, Mamie explains what love is (“You just exchange egos. He looks after yours. You look after his. His whims are yours. Yours are his”) and reassures her that she’s not too selfish for marriage. Why, she tells Sally, she is always the first of the children to say sorry (“I usually reckon about 20 seconds before the contrite head appears around the door”) and with a bit of practice “some day in the distant future you might actually desist from saying whatever it is you’re going to have to apologise for the next minute”. “It’s good intent that counts,” she adds, “and that comes from the mind, and we all know the power of the mind.”

This book is about looking after someone who has lost that power of mind, but I wanted to start this review with Mamie’s letter because the whole point of this book is that it too starts with love. It opens out into medicine, philosophy, reportage from both sides of the Atlantic, but it only is able to be the profoundly moving book it is because it is infused with love to begin with.

And that matters, because we need love be able to see past the shouting, the anguish, the screams, the steady withdrawal from the world, the tears of frustration and the keening of a breaking mind that an illness that will affect one in three people over 65 leaves in its wake. We need our own loving memories to remind us that there’s more to this memory-less shell of a human being that dementia has left us with.

There’s no doubt about Magnusson’s love for – and pride in – her whip-smart mother: an already close bond tightened further when her brother died aged 11 after being run over by a lorry. But anyone reading this if bound to ask themselves whether they too could cope with sharing their house with a loved one who has grown almost unrecognisablethrough Alzheimer’s or dementia. If so, for how long? Wouldn’t you get tired of the sheer drudgery of unappreciated care, of looking after this person who now thinks you’re a complete stranger? Would you be able to control your patience when this same person cries endlessly or is endlessly vitriolic about her loving twin sister? That’s exactly what Sally feels, at one point, when Mamie has pushed her to the verge of exasperation – when she recalls that letter, the one I mentioned at the start, the one, remember, with those motherly words of wisdom: “Some day in the distant future you might actually desist from saying whatever it is you’re going to have to apologise for the next minute.”

Books like this are difficult to get right: just a hint of emotional dishonesty, whether self-pity or even lightly veiled self-praise, and they flounder. There’s none of that here, just the opposite: this is a book written with a rare combination of analytical inquiry – Magnusson is clearly appalled by our collective lack of care for those with dementia and determined to do what she can to improve things – and intimate, deeply moving memoir.

Faced with her mother losing her grip on her mind, Magnusson began this book as an attempt to find her again using her own memory, her father’s, their love letters, and recollections of friends and family. And though, in the background, the the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s are eating away at Mamie’s cerebellum, the story is told in a way that defies its relentless progression. It loops back into the past: those first ominous signs of the disease’s onset, then a wide swing back into the history of the disease; how Mamie coped with husband Magnuss’s illness and death, then a wide, joyous loop back to their love’s first blush. It’s as if the book is saying, look, this is what memory is, this is how a working brain can act like a searchlight on ignorance, this is the very thing whose absence causes such pain.

One last thing. As part of her research, Magnusson discovers that one thing in the mind that dementia can’t destroy is music. She writes about the pioneering work of a hospital in the Bronx where patients are soothed by iPods playing music that means a lot to them. She doesn’t make too much of this, and the story moves on.

A hundred pages later, there are a couple of quiet paragraphs about a charity Magnusson has just set up. It’s called She’s one classy lady, Sally Mag, and she’s done her mum proud.