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English department

One Hundred Names for Love
by Diane Ackerman

One Hundred Names for Love is the story of Diane Ackerman’s husband Paul West’s stroke. Diane Ackerman and Paul West are both celebrated novelists. Ackerman’s memoir includes the struggles of battling Paul’s aphasia. The purpose of the memoir is to recount the journey of healing that Paul and Diane both undertake. Above all, it’s the story of a marriage that was built on language and love and is rebuilt with language and love. One Hundred Names for Love is educational, emotional, and deeply personal. This memoir made me grateful for my health and helped me gain a better understanding of the horrors that can result from a stroke.

Ackerman begins her memoir with a description of the events leading up to the stroke. She then details the stroke and its aftermath. Ackerman describes the emotional turmoil she experienced during this time, providing details about the first weeks in the hospital, the agony of seeing what Paul could no longer do, the return home, the new struggles that awaited them there, and the slow journey of healing. Ackerman ends with an update about how Paul is doing today, her role in his life, and how their relationship is now. She concludes with a list of all the new pet names that Paul made for her after his stroke. Some of these names include, “Swan Boat of the Imperial Sun”, “Patient Priestess of Ever-afters” and “Goddess of Abstract Conversation”. This list is her one hundred names for love.

Ackerman’s writing style takes a few chapters to get used to. She writes extremely long sentences full of sensory details and interesting phrases. At the beginning Ackerman writes, “…I was struck by how the body sometimes looks like the sea creature it is, a jellyfish with long tentacles…a gelatinous animal full of…spongy and stringy bits”. Paul’s stroke damaged his ability to use language, but both he and Ackerman were expert writers with enormous vocabularies and literary knowledge. The quirky use of language along with the unpredictable and often scrambled and incorrect language Paul uses in his post stroke days combine to make this memoir extremely language based. Ackerman wants her readers to enjoy the words she writes, and, through this pleasure, appreciate their abilities to use language, which most people often take for granted.

Ackerman uses a great deal of broken dialogue in her memoir. It is essential for readers to understand the difficulties Paul had putting together simple sentences that people without brain injury can do reflexively. This broken dialogue is often difficult to understand which forces the reader to participate with this couple in the painstaking struggle of recovering from a devastating stroke. At first Paul cannot speak any word but “mem.” He goes on to say things like “Nit sot wupid.” He eventually speaks in sentences but the sentences, such as: “I speak good coffee!” still don’t make sense. Ackerman often poses questions to herself, or gives a few lines explaining what she was thinking at critical moments during Paul’s struggle to recover. When she realized that Paul had lost his ability to read, she wrote, “Oh my god, he really can’t read!” This device helps readers understand how Diane was feeling as this was happening. Ackerman also puts in excerpts from Paul West himself, years later, describing how he was feeling in his wordless state, such as when she wrote about how he later described the experience as being “a hovel of mayhem”. I found this to be especially revealing and helpful. I would have appreciated even more from the perspective of Paul West.

The descriptions of how Paul had forgotten Diane’s name were especially heartbreaking. Diane’s unwavering devotion to her husband is also stirring. Every page is devoted to the process and journey of Paul, describing Paul’s movement abilities, telling readers about Paul’s preferred diet, expressing the favorite activities that Paul engaged in, and always reporting the things that Paul was struggling with.

This memoir was very good at telling readers about aphasia and the nature of the problem, the manifestations of the problem, and the ways that the brain can compensate for injury, such as stroke. The memoir was also plainly honest. Every detail seemed to confirm that this was exactly what Ackerman experienced. The memoir did at times go into too much detail. I often felt that I really did not need to know many of the details Ackerman confided in me, such as the fact that Paul loved to watch Judge Judy, the fact that Paul’s hair turned green in the swimming pool, or that Paul preferred Klondike Slim Bars. The monotonous details were honest and they accurately illustrate the repetitious and dull process of starting all over with language processing. Diane’s patience and care for Paul showed her love for him. Paul’s appreciation for Diane illustrated his love for her.

Readers should read One Hundred Names for Love to gain an understanding of the profound effects severe strokes have on people, including on all the people who love them and who must learn to communicate with them all over again.