cover image On Vanishing: Mortality, Dementia, and What It Means to Disappear

On Vanishing: Mortality, Dementia, and What It Means to Disappear

Lynn Casteel Harper. Catapult, $26 (240p) ISBN 978-1-948226-28-8

Baptist minister and essayist Harper, drawing upon her experience as a nursing home chaplain, devotes her affecting but uneven debut to reclaiming dementia patients from being defined primarily by their cognitive deficits. Arguing against seeing people with late-stage Alzheimer’s and similar disorders as suffering a “death before death,” she shows, instead, that a “palpable life force abides” in such individuals. Her wide-ranging work runs into some trouble, at times digressing into discussions of conditions she considers comparable, such as her own sleepwalking. More damagingly, she crosses the line separating a serious, medically informed look at dementia and a romanticization of it as an opportunity for “reorienting one’s spirituality.” For example, on apparent dementia sufferer Ralph Waldo Emerson’s last years, she indulges in ethereal mysticism: “Seams widen, running outward to new and larger circles, to greater expanses of beauty and repose, and without end.” In contrast, Harper touches too little upon experiences of anxiety, fear, bewilderment, and loss, such as that of a woman who tells her, “I don’t know who I am anymore.” Thus, while it’s an admirable argument that dementia patients exist “along the continuum of human experience,” this often moving book falls short of being persuasive. Agent: Chris Clemans, Janklow & Nesbit. (Apr.)