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Almost two decades ago, Bill Clinton, whose skill at fitting gesture to national mood at times rivaled Ronald Reagan’s, famously proposed a series of town-hall meetings to explore ways of preserving Social Security. About the same time “civility projects” – groups mobilized to discuss and solve community problems while modeling respect – were beginning to multiply in universities and municipalities across the country, much as learning circles had already replaced traditional classes in our more progressive schools. Even today any half hour spent listening to NPR or watching Bill Moyers is likely to include a call for a national conversation about one problem or another.

The irony, almost too obvious to state, is that instances of authentic public discourse are and have been dwindling as fast as calls for it have increased in number and urgency. Harangue and tweets are in; reasoned verbal give and take is out. Shock jock Howard Stern’s income and ratings have risen steadily even as civil speech-codes have lengthened and become more nearly ubiquitous. Recent biennial elections in the United States gave us fresh and dismal evidence that insult has now almost completely replaced informed debate in political campaigns. And, as cash and counterculture change places once again, the rhythmically relentless, can’t-get-a-word-in-edgewise monologues of rap artists are in some ways becoming the rhetorical templates for more and more of our daily speech acts.

Harangue and tweets are in; reasoned verbal give and take is out.

Nowhere, though, has the pontifical overshadowed the nuanced more strikingly than in discussions of bioethical issues. Here one routinely encounters from the left positions incompatible with orthodox piety and until recently unacceptable to civilized norms as well. Mainstream feminist groups construe any legal action to protect the unborn as a war on women. Princeton ethicist Peter Singer dines meatless lest animals suffer yet writes that “killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all” (Practical Ethics, 3rd ed. [Cambridge University Press, 2011]). The unflinching, paradoxically bloodless style in which Singer limits sanctions against infanticide ought not to go unnoticed, for it typifies the flatly self-referential tone adopted by those who can no longer imagine the possibility of significant opposition. The ACLU’s website, for example, currently showcases a just-published piece in Elle magazine that “shatters the too-long held belief that a woman who has an abortion must feel guilty about it.” For a few women, the article’s author, Laurie Abraham, grants, “abortion is indeed a tragedy, a trauma with long-lasting reverberations. But I want to tell a different story, the more common yet strangely hidden one, which is that I don’t feel guilty and tortured about my abortion. Or rather, my abortions. There, I said it.”


When exceptions to these unhesitant, remorse-free pronouncements about which lives count do appear in the mainstream media, we need to notice and give them due regard. Here I would like to call attention to two such pieces, a PBS NewsHour Weekend segment on assisted suicide (aired Nov. 2, 2014), and a recent essay by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts. The first, hosted by Stephen Fee and part of a PBS series on the issue, is built around interviews with a woman named Pam Wald. Wald’s husband, dying with excruciating pain from recurring cancer, used the provisions of Oregon’s Death with Dignity law to end his life in 2011. Overall, the segment is weighted in support of Oregon’s permissive legislation. Yet the opposing side is fairly and movingly represented by Dr. Bill Toffler, who leads the Physicians for Care Education Foundation and who likewise bore testimony to deep personal loss – his own wife of 40 years was diagnosed as terminally ill five years before her death. Toffler, however, framed that experience by giving a compassionate account of medical care shaped by Hippocratic ideals.

The Leonard Pitts column, which recently ran in many newspapers under the title “Without Our Memories What Are We?” warmly juxtaposes descriptions of two visits with the author’s Aunt Millie, a favorite relative. In the first, Pitts is a boy of almost 12 and Millie is a stylish, vivacious woman in her 30s. In the second visit, made 45 years later, Millie is still stylish (“church dress on, makeup applied, … a flowered hat sitting low on her head”) but asks the same set of five or six questions repeatedly: Where is she? Does she have to pay? What about her car? Millie lives now in an Alzheimer’s facility; and all who are or will be robbed by this scourge of mid- to later life stand in debt to Pitts for this quietly eloquent piece that is both celebration and lament.

All genuinely good writing is dialogical, so I’d like to explore a few of the thoughts and memories that Pitts’ reflections stirred in me. Doing so will bring us again to the issue Singer and Abraham conclude so confidently: that is, which lives count? And it will also point us toward a richer, more hopeful way of posing the question posed in Pitts’ title: Does radical memory loss expunge also our sense of self, our personhood?

My wife’s mother was stricken with Alzheimer’s when she was in her early 70s. Psychiatrists at first bungled her diagnosis (this was more than 20 years ago), refusing to administer the anti-depressant she had been taking. By the time family members got her into a specialized facility, she was profoundly withdrawn – eating very little, refusing to speak or open her eyes, and, when taken from bed to chair, sitting doubled over, in as near a fetal position as possible. One afternoon my wife and her sister sat with Dorothy quite a long time, at first trying to draw her out but soon just trying to be present with her by talking between themselves as cheerfully and normally as possible. At one point, my wife, turning toward the clamshell shape her mother had assumed, said with a smile and good-humored irony, “Sue knows everything, doesn’t she, Mom?” To which a lap-muffled voice immediately replied, “She thinks she does.” On another visit, a year or two later, family members took Dorothy for a short walk outside. Dorothy had been an expert gardener, but she mostly stared ahead, seemingly oblivious to the lovely landscaping. Just before reentering the building, though, she stopped abruptly, pointed to a flower, and said, “Plant!” She wasn’t just recognizing. She was classifying. I wouldn’t have been that much more surprised had she named genus and species.


At that same Maine facility one afternoon, I noticed an elderly woman sitting alone and ceaselessly babbling apparently nonsensical words and syllables. Irritated despite myself, I tried to ignore the noise; but then, probably because I used to teach Melville and have read Moby-Dick many times, I recognized some nautical terms. I approached her, smiled, and said, “You know boats. You used to sail, didn’t you?” Her expression changed as anger, fear or maybe just the distress of isolation melted somewhat, and I think she nodded “yes.”

The experience Pitts shared of singing with his Aunt Millie brought tears to my eyes, as it struck particularly close to home. When my wife and her sister, both fine musicians, played and sang in the gathering rooms at Sedgewood Commons, many residents otherwise unresponsive, alien or mute would start moving to the rhythm; more than a few would join in. Years later and hundreds of miles distant, my wife’s father-in-law from her first marriage, silent and long immobile from both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, seemed completely uncomprehending when spoken to in English. But when my wife started singing “O Tannenbaum” in his native German, he wept. My own father remained free of Alzheimer’s, but by his middle to late 90s, dementia of a milder sort had taken its toll. In 1933 or ’34 he had played trumpet in a traveling tent show, and his love of music had been deep and lifelong. One afternoon I phoned him at the nursing home room in southern Illinois where he lived. “Son, I’ve been appointed by the governor to hire a band and go on the road. A box of music came in this afternoon. It’s tough, but I can learn it. Listen, we’re going to play Chicago, and when we do, I want you to be sure to come out to hear us.”

In asking with such genuine respect and altogether appropriate trepidation, “without our memories, what are we?” Pitts joins a select company of thinkers and seekers honest enough to ask and brave enough to wonder. Nietzsche begins his profound treatise The Use and Abuse of History by envying cattle grazing in nearby fields, oblivious to time and, because incapable of anticipation and memory alike, free from fear of the future or regret for the past. James Baldwin, in the title essay of his distinguished collection Notes of a Native Son, explores the searing realization that hatred and love, like birth and death, lie alarmingly but revealingly near each other. So, perhaps, do memory and humanity itself.


Maybe, though, moments like those Pitts experienced with his aunt and the one I was privy to with my in-laws and my father—maybe these unexpected glimpses of recognition and commonality open windows onto a larger and far deeper truth: that it is recall, not memory, that fails. Somewhere and at some level, Dorothy went on classifying; she lost most of her speech, but none of her tart sense of irony. That babbling woman at Sedgewood just might have gone on sailing; my father-in-law’s childhood language came back afresh; and my father, no longer mobile or even in command of his bodily functions, could in what we term dementia promote himself from the band member he was to the band leader he dreamed of being. Recall functions in relation to time and is vulnerable to all its vicissitudes. Consciousness, most religions teach us, is eternal, and it is in consciousness, I suspect, that true memory and imagination, its fraternal twin, participate and find their home. “In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not true, I would have told you.”

Debates about the quality of life and the right to die will become steadily sharper, and catch phrases shouted from soapboxes mock the difficulty of the issues and the depth of pain felt on both sides. While pain can teach humility, it more often erodes patience and stirs self-righteousness, eagerly seizing on the apparent in place of the real. And if pain often thwarts reason and bypasses deliberation, just think what hubris does. The engineers who built the Hoover Dam were competent calculators and designers but naive about climate and ignorant of ecology. Had they studied cross sections of bristlecone pine, had they drilled their core samples to check bedrock porosity a little deeper, if they had bothered to calculate the increased salinity their blockage and diversion of the Colorado River would produce or the harm that salinity would do to millions of acres and millions of Mexican lives downstream – our planet would be healthier and more fertile.

I share Leonard Pitts’ troubled realization that we don’t know what we are without our memories. But if my mother-in-law had seen his aunt’s flower-trimmed hat, I suspect she would have pointed and said, “plants.” Or maybe “pretty.” My father-in-law might have mumbled, “der Hut.” And my Dad, hearing Millie belt out “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” might have said, “My band needs a female vocalist. We’re going to play Chicago. How about joining us?”

Windows like that open onto vistas that ought to be pondered.

William E. Graddy is retired from teaching English at Trinity College, Deerfield, Illinois.

Photo: Death to the Stock Photo