TO LOVE WHAT IS, by Alix Kates Shulman

by Jason Tougaw

To Love What Is: A Marriage Transformed is novelist Alix Kates Shulman‘s sharp and moving account of living with her husband Scott after a brain injury that left his memory severely impaired, but other aspects of his self intact. Shulman’s book dissects the difference between memory and identity more thoroughly and sensitively than any other I’ve read.

Shulman is a feminist activist and writer well known in particular for her novel Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen. She is also a master of building both stories and sentences. Her spare prose oozes intimacy and philosophy as she unfolds a tale about confronting the physiology of her marriage. Of course, the physiology of self is thrown into relief when the body is injured. Shulman’s story tells a less well understood story. Scott’s accident left him with a brain that wouldn’t let her forget that marriage is an arrangement between two organsims whose bodies are fundamental to the bargain.

Shulman intercuts the story of Scott’s accident and the life it creates for the couple with flashbacks to the history of this unusual marriage. The two were high school sweethearts, separated for decades before uniting in mid-life to form an unexpected bond for two people whose lives had diverged pretty sharply. From the beginning, Shulman felt a strong admiration and attraction to Scott’s physicality, which she linked to his reserved, masculine, and trustworthy character. Their early relationship, consummated in a motel room that seemed to represent both the spark and the transience of their bond:

It was enough for a summer fling that I found him handsome, sexy, sweet, attentive, and different. We both knew from the start that our lives, barely beginning, were headed off in different directions, and that come autumn, when he packed up to leave for Duke, our romance would end. Creatures of Heights High, we never introduced each other to our friends, keeping our affair private by default. 

After a thirty-four year hiatus, the couple reunited (creatures who’d traveled well beyond the lives set out for them at Heights High). The accident happened two decades after the reunion, in a remote retreat in Maine, where Shulman had for years spent time writing. Scott fell from their loft bed and was transported to a Portland hospital by boat. When he got there, the doctor said to him, “The CAT scans indicate that you have clots on your brain. We don’t know the extent of the damage but if it seems you wouldn’t be able to resume and independent life, would you want us to try to keep you alive?” Scott’s answer: “No, I don’t think so.”

Shulman’s book puts easy definitions of “an independent life” to the test—both hers and Scott’s. A marriage, after all, is based on mutual dependence. Stunned by the signs of trauma on Scott’s body—”he’s like a zombie riddled with tubes”; “his face so swollen that it’s hard to see where his jaw ends and his neck begin”—Shulman settles into a caretaking role that curtails her independence to a such a degree that her friends repeatedly urge her to institutionalize her husband. Instead, she copes. She learns to live with Scott in the eternal present that defines his life after recovery. She learns to find Scott’s identity in that present, an identity left intact when memory fails. And she writes her way through the experience.

Shulman describes her motives and routines for writing with particular nuance and insight:

I hadn’t expected to write about so private and raw a subject until a friend in whom I’d been confiding, who happens to be an editor, kept insisting that a truthful account of the turn our lives have taken could make a worthy book. At first I was skeptical, but since we were winging everything else in our new, uncharted lives, I gradually warmed to the idea. Certainly no other subject was closer to my thoughts, and there was the possibility that writing about it could help me understand it. Why not try? Scott was all for it. I decided to read him the chapters as I wrote them and allow him the final say (though in the end, supportive as ever, he didn’t object to a single word). So it happens that at nine o’clock each morning I banish the real Scott in order to entertain the virtual one, who stays with me on the page until two, when the real one opens our door, exclaiming, “Look who it is! It’s my beautiful wife!” and hugs me like a returning warrior. 

Shulman’s speculation, that “writing about it could help me understand it,” is a fundamental premise of many memoirs that focus on the brain. With understanding comes agency. Her question, “why not try?” suggests the hypothetical quality of the enterprise. Writing might help, but there’s no guarantee, and it’s pretty well impossible to predict how. Her juxtaposition of “the real Scott” and “the virtual one” is incisive: it speaks to how memoir might generate agency. By creating a virtual portrait of Scott, a companion to the self-portrait that emerges from Shulman’s compassionate and articulate voice, she uses language and narrative to recreate the life she and Scott are struggling with. In the process, she reorients herself in relation to that life.

Later in the book, Shulman meditates further on her writing process:

When Scott is off with Judith and I’m writing about him, my mood is tranquil, hopeful, occasionally ecstatic, despite the sometimes grim content….Writing takes me out of my sometimes beleaguered self into the trancelike realm of alpha waves, where, like Scott, I live in the moment. With five focused hours a day of aesthetic relief, I have my life again, with enough satisfaction to carry me through the entire day, and in the evenings back to the world, no longer alien. For this place of calm it seems not only useless but mean to brood on chaos or wish things other than they are. 

The act of writing, the habits of mind required to do it, shape Shulman’s consciousness profoundly. She describes this as “aesthetic relief,” an entrance into “the trancelike realm of alpha waves, where, like Scott, [she] live[s] in the moment.” The word “trance” suggests a liminal state between the conscious and the unconscious, one that, like dreams, promises to put the two aspects of mind into closer contact than they are under ordinary circumstances. The phrase “in the moment” suggests that writing involves the suspension of full-scale autobiographical awareness in favor of what neurologist Antonio Damasio calls alternately “core conciousness” and “core self,” whereby an organism interacts with—and is changed by—the objects perceived in its immediate environment. The ironies here are productive: to achieve agency through writing, Shulman suspends conscious intention; to reflect on the story of her life with Scott, she suspends autobiographical awareness.

Shulman makes it clear that she’s averse to tragedy. She resists and denies the attempts of friends and medical professionals to cast her story or her relationship with Scott in tragic or traumatic terms. Hers is a story about living with and loving what is. In that sense, Shulman’s attittude is almost Buddhist in its comfort with what she can’t control or know, as a writer and as a person. She can’t control Scott’s memory, and she can’t know enough about his brain, or any brain, to understand how a fall from a loft bad worked like a scalpel to remove his capacity for remembrance but preserves so many other traits that define his disposition—the masculine sweetness, the tenderness, the compassion.

The structure of To Love What Is is layered, with its alternating descriptions of a youthful fling, a midlife reunion and enduring commitment, Scott’s devastating accident, and after that, the couple’s learning how to live and love in his eternal present. The layers give the voice a developmental quality. The naive young lover becomes the outspoken feminist novelist becomes the philosophically-minded caretaker determined to live up to the standards of her integrity, to protect her own fierce independence and Scott’s quality of life. The book is tough, tender, and wise in its response to what many would call tragedy, and it’s brilliant in its ability to sift through the uncertain knowledge of brain science to develop a set of strategies tailored to living with, rather than simply diagnosing, Scott’s damaged brain.

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