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Book Review: Brain in a Jar: A Daughter's Journey Through Her Father's Memory

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It can be hard to force yourself to read about something as profoundly depressing as Alzheimer’s disease. It’s not even like reading about cancer, which most readers can reasonably assure themselves they don’t have. If you’re over 40 — or younger, in the case of early-onset AD — and you forget something at the grocery store, you don’t have to be a hypochondriac to worry AD might be sneaking up on you.

The best writing about Alzheimer’s doesn’t just describe the universal symptoms that signal its onset. Rather, it chronicles the effects of the disease on the individuals afflicted and everyone around them, and depicts a before and after to show how people deal with this devastating disease. In other words, the best writing on Alzheimer’s tells family stories.

Brain in a Jar: A Daughter’s Journey Through Her Father’s Memory, Nancy Stearns Bercaw’s account of her father’s lifelong efforts to avoid the disease, is not just a good book about Alzheimer’s, and it’s not just a good family history. It’s a good book, period. The Burlington author recounts her father’s battle in concise, unflinching chapters that also provide a riveting backstory — even when you know how it will end.

Brain in a Jar starts with Bercaw’s father, Dr. Beauregard Lee Bercaw, sitting in his Florida home before his mind has slipped away. He makes his visiting daughter promise on the family Bible to kill him if he shows signs of Alzheimer’s. This book is both her response to that request and a lively tale of her father’s impact on her life. Beau, who lost his own irascible father to the same disease, was obsessed with preventing it throughout his adult life and his career as a neurologist. He kept his father’s atrophied brain in a jar on his desk as a symbol of that fight.

Though the man people knew as “Dr. Beau” came to see suffering and death as ubiquitous and inevitable, he believed diseases that took the brain were much more to be feared than ones that took the body. He passed that obsession to his daughter, beginning when she was too young to understand.

Nancy Stearns Bercaw describes herself as resembling her father more than anyone else in her family; as a result, by the time she was 6 years old, she knew all about Alzheimer’s. She’d also started to develop her own morbid fascination with brain-wasting diseases. This fear became so ingrained in the author by early adulthood that, when she was stricken with hallucinations brought on by altitude sickness and dysentery while traveling in Asia, her first thought was that AD had begun to destroy her mind.

Brain is full of stories that will resonate with any reader, though a few might cause some head scratching. One standout concerns the time Beau nearly wrecked the family boat, rendering it inoperable. Rather than admitting his mistake and calling the Coast Guard, he made his daughter — a competitive swimmer — pull the boat to safety.

Beau is a compelling, layered character with great strengths as well as flaws, and his daughter chronicles all of them with love and care. She details her father’s difficulty with expressing emotions — he could tell her he loved her only in a roundabout way — and recalls her shock when his slip into Alzheimer’s allowed him to say “I love you” for the first time. Until his senility, Bercaw consoled herself with the presumption that Beau must care about her; after all, this quixotic, unconventional father made sure she knew how to save a loved one by performing an emergency tracheotomy. She was 9 at the time.

Many of Dr. Beau’s friends and former patients didn’t know about his illness until Bercaw (an occasional contributor to this paper), wrote about it in the New York Times. Now she has documented his life in a compulsively readable book that shows what really made him tick. Readers whose families are contending with Alzheimer’s may find salve in Bercaw’s insights. And for anyone who is not, Brain in a Jar is worth reading simply because it’s a great story, well told.

"Brain in a Jar: A Daughter’s Journey Through Her Father’s Memory" by Nancy Stearns Bercaw, Broadstone Books, 208 pages. $24.95.

Nancy Stearns Bercaw reads from and signs "Brain in a Jar" on Saturday, April 6, 6:30 p.m., at Phoenix Books Burlington. Info, 448-3350. phoenixbooks.biz

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