Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Theft of Memory: Book Review

Published 2 June 2015.
Jonathan Kozol, teacher, writer and activist for education reform, writes a compelling memoir about the years he and his father, Dr. Harry Kozol, spent together from 1994 to 2008.

The Theft of Memory: Losing My Father, One Day at a Time (2015) starts with the onset of Dr. Kozol's symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease and continue until his death at 102.

This dementia memoir distinguishes itself by being very academic in its approach.  

Both father and son are nationally recognized in their fields. Because this memoir reflects their professions, I suspect that readers will either love it or find it a bit too cerebral.

As a graduate of Harvard Medical School with specialties in neurology and psychiatry, Dr. Kozol recognize his symptoms with fairly objective accuracy, reporting them for the first time to his son, Jonathan, in 1992.

Two years later, a colleague confirmed the diagnosis. Dr. Kozol lives for another fourteen years beyond his diagnosis.  It's during this time that the younger Kozol uses writing as a way to document his father's live generally and their father-son relationship more specifically.

The book, however, doesn't stick to scientific fact alone. True, the younger Kozol writes a memoir that is filled with theories and scientific detail.  It must do so as a tribute written by an educational theorist about his psychiatrist father.

I tend to take an academic approach when responding to difficulties. Consequently, the book's approach really appealed to me.

Kozol describes his father's memory changes, primarily by letting Dr. Kozol describe them himself for as long as he is able. At some point, the scientist becomes more emotional and passive about his abilities.  At that point, the educational activist alters the tone of the narrative to contain more about relationships and about the roles and responsibilities of Dr. Kozol's caregivers.

 Kozol's memoir makes a great case that quality of life is in the eye of the beholder. And ever the advocate, Kozol argues that medical professionals should not be given power to decide when to cease curative care and switch to palliative care.  Kozol graciously shares the constant evaluation and re-evaluation of his father's condition while asking for input by paid caregivers and medical professionals.  It's one of the most compelling elements of the memoir.

True, their father-son relationship was conducted mainly through academic discourse.  Jonathan was ever the student to Harry the teacher.  Nevertheless, Kozol expresses the deep emotion he had for Dr. Kozol, who was more than a revered scientist who evaluated both Patty Hearst and the Boston Strangler for their trials.

The much respected Dr. Kozol was also a clearly a father to Jonathan and to a daughter (Barbara Kozol Reckseitt), a husband to one woman (Ruth Massell Kozol), and friend to handful of friends--most notably, Eugene O'Neill*.

As is typical of most dementia memoirs, I learned so much more about the family and other supporters than I did about the challenges brought on by the disease. I felt honored to observe the tenderness that Jonathan and Harry expressed for each other and by the tenderness shown by many others who were part of Dr. Kozol's support system, including his wife of nearly 80 years. (She had great longevity, too.)

By the end of the book, raw emotion finally has the upper hand as Kozol reflects in the book's conclusion on the whole of his father's life, the specifics of his father's final years, and the highs and lows of their complex relationship. 

[*Note: Those who are fans of Eugene O'Neill's plays will find a significant amount of detail about this playwright, too.  Dr. Kozol met O'Neill when he accepted him as a patient. Their doctor-patient relationship soon turned into more of a friendship.  Dr. Kozol was nearly a family member to O'Neill and maintained ties with O'Neill's children and grandchildren following O'Neill's death.] 


Books about Dementia

Films about Dementia


  1. You have sold me. I need to get a copy of this for so many reasons! Thank you for sharing this book with us.

    1. I found it to be informative and touching. I hope that you enjoy it. Take Care, Nancy.

  2. My father had Alz/dementia and I find those memoirs very difficult to read. Same with movies. I've lived it, I fear it for myself, and to be honest, as ,much as I know it's got a broader scope, I just can't bear the pain of reading and seeing anything about that cruel condition. Wish I could. It's too hard.

    1. Carol: It's OK. If you aren't in this space, it's fine. Because I have been a college teacher for years, my colleagues ask me a lot about changes to the brain--both those changes due to healthy, normal aging and changes due to disease. I do not have a personal connection to ALZ at this time, so I can read about it without a lot of emotion. That may change. I may end up having a loved one with dementia. Then I will have had a preview (of sorts). I know that I read a lot about delivery of babies, but until I went through it, I didn't really "get" what I'd been reading about. We all do what we can. Work your space. Sorry if my blog's recurring themes of ALZ and dementia are difficult. You can skip those posts; I won't take it personally.