Coaxing the universal from the particular
The Twelfth Raven By Doris Brett UWAP, 314pp, $29.99 Shy: A Memoir By Sian Prior Text Publishing, 250pp, $32.99
IN 2011 a literary scuffle broke out in the US following Neil Genzlinger’s review of four memoirs in The New York Times under the heading “The problem with memoirs”. Genzlinger argued: “Three of the four did not need to be written, a ratio that probably applies to all memoirs published over the last two decades.” He bemoaned the “current age of over-sharing”. Nevertheless, more and more memoirs are published and enthusiastically read, including in Australia.
In a review in this newspaper of Mandy Sayer’s third memoir, The Poet’s Wife, Jo Case wrote of the author’s first two: “Both are textbook examples of memoir at its best, combining engrossing storytelling (and unusual stories) with meticulous personal insight that coaxes the universal out of the particular.” It is worth looking at Doris Brett’s second memoir, The Twelfth Raven, and Sian Prior’s first book, Shy: A Memoir, in the light of these views.
The Twelfth Raven falls into the sub-genre of medical memoir. Martin, Brett’s fit, non-drinking, non-smoking 59-year-old husband, notes some odd signs during his beloved Jewish dancing class. (He has learned 300 dances but aims to learn all 3000. He’s also a computer analyst.) When he complains: “I’m having trouble putting words together,” Brett snaps to: “I am a psy- chologist. I’ve studied neuropsychology. I know that not being able to put words together means something is going on. In the brain.”
From here Brett is on the case 24/7, driving and managing Martin’s care and treatment. He loses the ability to speak and the use of his right arm. Later he is diagnosed with a life-threatening heart condition, an underlying infection and develops epileptic seizures. What caused what? Will he recover?
Brett is quick to pinpoint incompetence, lack of focus and compassion, and becomes a ferocious doctor, hospital and rehabilitation care shopper. Martin must have the best doctors and also the best beds in any ward! She also acknowledges good care and expertise. She monitors the efficacy of medications, battles the chaos and inefficiencies of our large hospitals: the poor communication between departments, doctors and other hospitals, and the often ludicrous rules about privacy and disclosure.
When appropriate rehabilitation is unavailable, Brett employs innovative techniques, with their daughter’s help, to work with Martin. Though she knows a lot about brain plasticity, she relies heavily on “Mr Google”, unearthing the best and latest research. Her bible is Norman Doidge’s bestseller The Brain that Changes Itself.
Over almost two years, Brett also maintains her psychology and psychotherapy practice, endures a bout of chickenpox and posts frequent email updates for friends. Brett is an award-winning poet and some of her poems related to this experience are included. She gains sustenance from close friendships, reading (“Memoirs become my only way of spending time with a fellow traveller”) and writing.
She writes authoritatively, with flair, passion, pace and flashes of self-deprecating humour, especially about her struggles with ATMs, credit cards and technology. Martin used to do all that. Her account is informative, instructive, but also chilling. Few of us would have the knowledge, confidence, language, persistence or personal and financial resources to undertake what she did. Despite being the most co-operative, undemanding and optimistic patient, does Martin owe much of his full recovery to Brett? From this experience Brett recognises the crucial need for “patient advocates”. She also sagely notes: “The carer is caring for the patient but no one is caring for the carer.”
Brett’s first memoir, Eating the Underworld, detailed her experience with ovarian cancer. Because of Martin’s illness she postponed genetic testing. Now she finds she has the dreaded BRCA1 genetic mutation. So Brett swings into action again, finding the right/best surgeons after deciding on a prophylactic double mastectomy, followed by breast reconstruction. She