Where Memories Go by Sally Magnusson
Sally Magnusson is a Scottish broadcaster and writer, who has worked as a news journalist and the presenter of Reporting Scotland for BBC Scotland for many years. Her father, Magnus Magnusson a well-known television personality, emigrated to the UK from Iceland as a small boy and her mother, Mamie Baird, was a well-respected Scottish journalist. It is, therefore, not surprising that when Mamie Baird suffered from dementia, her daughter chose to write about it in her seminal book, Where Memories Go: Why Dementia Changes Everything by Sally Magnusson. It was book of the month at my book group.
The author adored her mother and when dementia took hold it started with sweetness, humour and an element of insight. Her family were adamant that they would care for her at home, setting up complicated rotas. However, later Mamie was aggressive and alienated even from her own twin sister. Magnus Magnusson died of cancer early in 2007 and, even then his wife was showing signs of Alzheimer’s and was not safe for her to administer his medication, although in her heyday, Mamie had been a pioneer who became the star writer of the Scottish Daily Express.
The photographs in Where Memories Go show that throughout her life she possessed beauty, vivacity and a smile that could eclipse lighthouses. She was a woman who loved language, and the first realisation that something was wrong comes when she reads an address at a friend’s funeral, then starts again on the first page and has to be led away.
Dementia is a disease that proceeds in little spirals: there are a few mirages of a return to cogency: but, unlike mental illness, it is, at present, incurable. It ends only in death. The narrative structure of Where Memories Go alternates between the story of Mamie’s advancing illness and the author’s own journalistic excursions. This saves the book from being maudlin. The disease inevitably runs relentlessly with the sickening bumps of new revelations of its advance and the occasional surprises of comedy: the calm declaration that Mamie and Magnus had discovered America, a last holiday to a Spanish city that Mamie likens to Aberdeen.
The book is unusual. The author has chosen, unusually, to write the book in the second person singular, and is talking to her mother (“you”) throughout. This effect is rather suffocating: it both excludes the reader from the dialogue and raises the question of how much is not being said. Magnusson seems to be saying what she would have liked to have told her mother if she could have understood her, or what she would never have dared to have communicated. We hear little about Magnusson’s relationship with her mother before she was ill, apart from a lengthy letter Mamie wrote to the author a few weeks before her wedding in 1984. It shows what a lively and thoughtful writer she was. The breakdown, the eclipse of these skills, must have been heartbreaking to watch, but we get little sense of who Mamie really was before the disease.
The final pages detailing the last few weeks of Mamie’s life were painful to read. Mamie’s death and the breakdown of language into fragments of syllables. Her hands clutching the air, the hallucinations, the skeletal figure in the bed.
This is not the first book-length account of dementia, nor will it be the last. However, as dementia goes on repeating itself, the story bears repeating, over and over again; because the loss of memory is one of the greatest mysteries of our age. Without memory we are nothing and no one. That is a scary thought. I did not fully engage with this book, perhaps because it is written in the second person, or perhps because the author does not fully let the reader in. I cannot recommend this book in an unqualified way, but it is worth reading if you can cope with the subject matter.