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by Sue Miller
Random House Trade, 2003
Review by Patricia Ferguson, Psy.D. on Nov 2nd 2004

The Story of My Father

Sue Miller is a gifted author whose fiction books I have always enjoyed immensely. The Story of My Father is her first foray into nonfiction, to my knowledge, and it reads as well as her fiction. The book is about her father's Alzheimer's disease, and how she and her family had to watch him die from it. Although her siblings took turns caring for their father, Miller herself was the primary caregiver (along with her husband and children), until the disease progressed to the point where he was unable to travel. Miller helped him renovate an old house that was close to her own that he had always loved. This gave them time to share that she now cherishes. The house turned out to be a real disaster and required more work than anyone else would have done, but Miller was happy to do so. However, he really didn't live in the house very long before his condition deteriorated. Sue and her family decided it was time to institutionalize him; they were able to visit him nearly every day until the end.

Miller discusses the behaviors of her father long before the diagnosis set in and tries to see if his earlier quiet and patient demeanor was a function of very early disease setting in. She had always seen him as kind and nonjudgmental, but looking back wonders if the etiology of even those traits were the beginning of the disease. She cites a study of nuns in their 20's who were given a cognitive test, and when tested much later, those who had done better on the earlier test were less likely to have Alzheimer's.

She also talks about her mother and siblings during her childhood and adolescent years. Her mother was as gregarious as her father was quiet and studious. Her father was a minister who preferred the solitude of his office.

When her father became unable to care for himself and needed to be institutionalized, she started out in a place for those who could come and go as they please. This was a mistake, as she soon learned, when he went to the symphony and decided to leave before it was over. This was the first of many nights that she and her husband spent searching the streets of Boston for a demented man. Soon he was moved to another level of care, and then another, etc. He became completely unable to do anything for himself. Miller talks about all this in a very humanizing way and makes the point that with few exceptions, people treated him in a dehumanizing way, such as speaking about him as if he weren't in the room within listening range.

Miller is writing this book to explain Alzheimer's and what it is like as a family member to live through it. Writing in itself is a therapeutic way to deal with death and disease, but Miller's intention is simply to tell her story and ask the question throughout if earlier behaviors are predictive of later disease. Although caring for him took a huge toll on Miller and her husband, she should be proud of sticking out the tough times. It is truly an unselfish act. Those last months were the hardest of course, and even though he no longer knew her she still visited him. She can live with the knowledge that she was there for him when he needed her, just as he had been there for her when she was a child with her questions very seriously even if they seemed childish.

 

2004 Patricia Ferguson

 

Patricia Ferguson, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who has many years of experience in both the private practice sector and in community mental health. She has numerous publications, the most recent being in Girl Wars by Cheryl Dellasaga, PhD, and Clarisse Nixon, PhD. She also contributed to a book on adult female aggression to be published in 2005. She is an author working on a book of memoirs regarding relationships between therapists. She and her husband and son reside in northern California.