Although she was in her eighties, Lillian Kessler danced through the hallways of her assisted living home, calling out “Cha-cha-cha!” She still loved parties as much as she had when she threw them for her business associates as a single career woman in Washington, D.C.. But Kessler had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease eight years before and no task — including dressing for the party — was accomplished easily.
“Making an Exit,” a new memoir by Yale School of Drama professor Elinor Fuchs, describes her mother Lillian’s struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease. The memoir alternates transcripts of Kessler’s speech during her illness, characterized by a “word salad” of jumbled words and syntax, with Fuchs’ own story.
Fuchs said her scholarly expertise in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism shaped her response to her mother’s illness.
“As my mother’s language began to crack up, instead of just hearing disintegration … I was hearing echoes of Beckett and Gertrude Stein, with all her repetition,” Fuchs said. “I was hearing a weird, zany art and poetry, and I began to bring down a little tape recorder and tape some of these things which I thought were so marvelous.”
She quotes her mother in the memoir describing herself as “in a fast muff, getting out of the wet ditches.”
Kessler was a divorced woman with her own business in the years after World War II. Fuchs describes this unconventional lifestyle as a strain on their early relationship, but the narrative of “Making an Exit” in part describes a reconciliation between mother and daughter many years later as Fuchs helped her mother through her illness.
“I realized it didn’t matter who was taking care of whom as long as care was being exchanged,” Fuchs said. “She changed [when she was ill], a lot of warmth and love came out of her as other things left.”
As Kessler’s only daughter, Fuchs was most responsible for her mother’s care. She wrote in the memoir that she initially avoided putting her mother into a nursing home, instead hiring a staff of women to take care of her mother 24 hours a day.
“I had studied improvisation and theater games,” she said in an interview. “I understood pretty early with my mother … we could just improvise and stay in the present moment.”
Relatively early in the progression of her mother’s illness, Kessler had to be treated for a significant infection. Fuchs said that the doctor who treated her mother encouraged Fuchs to direct doctors not to treat future infections, so that the burden of caring for Kessler would pass as quickly as possible.
“But if I’d had a directive in place like that, think about what I would never have experienced,” Fuchs said. “To me she had quality of life, and she had quality of spirit. As much as she had lost, she learned something about love that she didn’t have before.”
Fuchs said late in life, her mother had a “love affair” with another patient at the nursing home. And in a conversation with Fuchs, Kessler at one point talked about leaving a “child,” as she had left Fuchs in her childhood while working in Washington, D.C. Fuchs said the conversation and the love affair showed how her mother grew even after she was crippled by her illness, displaying a kind of human growth.
“One of the big, big lessons for me is that you don’t give up on human growth,” she said. “One of the great teachers on human growth was Ibsen. Ibsen is famous for his characters in the last act going off in some direction you never expect.”
Fuchs’ memoir grew out of a project that was funded by a Rockefeller Fellowship in Age Studies. The fellowship was coordinated by Kathleen Woodward, who was then the director of the Center for Twentieth Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Woodward, who now teaches at the University of Washington, said she wanted to give support to Fuchs because of her story’s potential to cross over into mass publication.
“I think that it is just so important to give scholars the opportunity to … write for large publics, and to encourage them to do that,” Woodward said.
Woodward said the book derives its power from its ability to capture Kessler’s distinctive personality.
“It created an indelible portrait for me of the persistence of personality and temperament into those years when cognition had declined, but her mother was still there,” she said.
Catherine Sheehy, Fuchs’ colleague at the School of Drama, attended the publisher’s launch party for the book and said Fuchs’ perspective as a drama critic shaped the structure of the memoir.
“It’s so compelling and so personal, and yet at the same time the structure of it is very sophisticated,” Sheehy said. “As she said at the book launch, all of her students would recognize the big Aristotelian three.”