Was it Stephen Spender who said that the role of the writer is to seek the deepest understanding of the lives of other people, giving voice to their unexpressed needs and feelings?
If the memory is accurate, the description aptly introduces Jonathan Kozol, whose early experiences teaching in a segregated elementary school classroom in Boston’s Roxbury neighbourhood 50 years ago laid the foundation for a writing crusade that has relentlessly indicted the unequal delivery of education and the broken social safety net south of the border.
“I remember one windy day,” Kozol reflects in a recent conversation. “I was standing near the windows and a whole frame of windows, not just a single window ... just fell into the room.”
The window was merely a representation of a broken system: broken desks, broken blackboards, broken children. Kozol remembers one fourth grade boy in particular. “If he talked to himself in the stairwells they would bring him down into the basement of the school and whip him. They did it with a bamboo whip on the palms of the hands, and it was particularly invidious because it was always black children being whipped and white men whipping them.”
Kozol was later fired for “curriculum deviation,” which could otherwise be described as using poetry to build a classroom. In the soft light of his publisher’s office, the activist writer with the gentle demeanour summons one of the deemed offending passages, this one from Langston Hughes:
What happens to a dream deferred? He recites the epic stanza, raising his arm as if to pinch the sky.
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
The fire was lit in Kozol’s belly, and he has written more than a dozen impassioned books since — his first was excerpted in the Atlantic magazine in 1967. His latest, The Theft of Memory: Losing My Father, One Day at aTime, is a departure, running deeply into his own life.
Establishing Kozol’s background is key to understanding this latest work, for there he was in the 1960s, a Harvard-educated man on the golden path of a Rhodes scholarship when he decided on the more radical course. His father, the noted neurologist Harry Kozol, was distressed by his decision. “I can’t forget the look of grimness and foreboding in his eyes when I first ventured into Roxbury,” he writes in The Theft of Memory. Harry Kozol penned some “horrendously alarming letters” to his son, expressing an urgent desire that he return to England and his scholarship post-haste.
“My father empathized with the civil rights movement and he admired young people who were going down south to try to break the back of apartheid,” Kozol says, “but somehow not for his son ... He doubted that teaching fourth grade at an inner-city school was a logical end point for someone who had had a privileged education.”
With time, the father accepted and ultimately admired his son’s chosen mission, and it is this relationship, growing closer and closer over time, that forms the bond explored in Theft of Memory.
Fundamentally, this is a story about a father’s descent into Alzheimer’s, about the son’s perceptions and elements of coping.
But more eloquently, this is a story about breaking conventions, an urge to rethink the patient, and thus the account is very much in keeping with Jonathan Kozol’s singular mind.
He looks back to 1990, when the first hints of something’s-not-quite-right began to emerge. Dr. Harry Kozol was a charming, literature-loving neurologist/psychiatrist/physician, a raconteur who would take his young son on long narrative–filled autumn perambulations. And so decades later when memory breaks started to emerge, little snaps in continuity, the doctor’s “congenial ease,” accompanied by a puff on his pipe, would elide the fractured moments.
Two years later the father took the son aside. He spoke of interrupted consciousness and rhythmic flashing lights and clear indications of cell degeneration. We should not be surprised that a neurologist would offer such high-level insights. But when he describes “a feeling of impending desecration of my own autonomy — a premonition of my imminent removal from contextual reality,” the reader is rocked right back on her heels.
(He also had a tart sense of humour. “Your mother’s constant worrying is worse than anything my hippocampus may intend to do to me.”)
In 1994, Harry Kozol was formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The medical community was losing one of its finest — Kozol’s professional career included 16 hours spent interviewing heiress Patty Hearst of Symbionese Liberation Army fame. (He had been recruited by the federal government and concluded that Hearst had acted of her own free will.)
What wasn’t publicly known was that Kozol had become doctor to, and confidant of, Eugene O’Neill. The turbulent playwright and his third wife, Carlotta, moved into a small hotel across from Kozol’s medical practice to be closer to his care.
The doctor had a lifelong habit of keeping meticulous records, including detailed observations of O’Neill’s state of mind. These he entrusted to his son. Kozol finds there a family-like warmth not in keeping with the conventional doctor-patient relationship. (Not to mention, as Kozol points out, Gene O’Neill’s legendary austere demeanour.) When O’Neill became depressed, he would say to Carlotta that he was sure to feel better once he had a chance “to talk with Harry.” Harry was a man who never rationed time.
That attentiveness resonated deeply with Kozol as he wrote of his father’s gathering dementia. And bothered him as he struggled with the marked lack of attentiveness his father received from his own supervising physician when he was moved into assisted living — from inhumane physical procedures to the doctor’s forgetting that Harry was allergic to a particular drug. That last misstep would lead to Harry Kozol’s death and a reader’s lament over his physical decline.
But, surprisingly, not his state of mind.
When Harry Kozol was in the nursing home he wrote this memo: “The future remains something in our memories. We are curious, but our patients upon review may benefit ... I look forward to seeing more of you once I am returned to this hemisphere.”
Jonathan Kozol never let him go. He spoke to his father directly. He insistently planted seeds of past connections. He never talked past his father as observers of those with Alzheimer’s so often do. “I knew that beneath the surface, beneath the realm of the spoken word or the easily accessible memory, I was convinced there was what I call a life beneath the life. There was a domain of free floating emotions, desires, memories, that might be elicited sometimes if I asked exactly the right question.”
The big surprise is this: in October 2002, six years after Harry was moved into institutional care, Jonathan took the decision to move his father home. Many advisers helped in making that decision, not least Harry’s wife, Ruth, who said to her son, “Your father’s like a child now. He’s been away from home too long. Go and buy a bed for him.”
Ruth liked to wear a Red Sox jersey while watching baseball; Harry liked to sit at his fine leather-topped desk and make notations that were impenetrable. An incredible crew of support workers made the expensive arrangement possible. In the end, it was Ruth who died first. Harry Kozol passed away seven years ago this August. He was 102.
Those final years were “a journey in which our arms were more closely interlocked,” Jonathan says. “As if together we were navigating the mystery of thinking. The mystery of memory.”
The Theft of Memory: Losing My Father, One Day at a Time is published by McClelland & Stewart.