On Vanishing offers an essential, empathic exploration of dementia, one of the most feared diseases in America, and in the process asks searching questions about what it means to face our own inevitable "vanishing."
In a searching, poetic inquiry into dementia, Lynn Casteel Harper delves into a disease that afflicts some six million Americans and yet seems shrouded in secrecy, its sufferers hidden away in institutions, its symptoms cloaked in a peculiar, telling language of terror and contempt ... She writes without fear or aversion but with a robust, restless curiosity, a keenness to reframe our understanding of dementia with sensitivity and accuracy. She has not merely observed decline in patients and family members; she has also observed fresh opportunities for 'compassion, honesty, humility.' ... It isn’t that people with dementia vanish, Harper argues, it’s that we insist they do ... What gives On Vanishing its particular, idiosyncratic energy is the unexpectedness of its focus. Rather than concentrating on case studies from her own practice or alternative models of care across cultures ...she turns to art and literature ... Sontag wrote that we are dual citizens of the kingdom of the sick and the kingdom of the well. In her beautifully unconventional book, Harper examines the porousness of the borders, the power of imagination and language to grant better futures to our loved ones and ourselves.
A compassionate collection of essays examining dementia from an unusually hopeful point of view ... In these essays, some of which were published in various journals, Harper explores with an open mind and empathetic imagination ... She explores how our often unconscious biases lead us to assume that people are 'gone' when they are actually right in front of us, longing for connection ... Harper moves smoothly between abstract reflections and concrete experiences, reflecting often on the effects of dementia on her grandfather and on her relationship with him, her fears that a genetic link to the disease may have been passed down to her, and her encounters with many individuals, all described in strikingly specific terms, surviving dementia in their own ways ... Helpful, sometimes moving insights into a situation many will face.
Baptist minister and essayist Harper, drawing upon her experience as a nursing home chaplain, devotes her affecting but uneven debut to reclaiming dementia patients from being defined primarily by their cognitive deficits ... Her wide-ranging work runs into some trouble, at times digressing into discussions of conditions she considers comparable, such as her own sleepwalking. More damagingly, she crosses the line separating a serious, medically informed look at dementia and a romanticization of it as an opportunity for 'reorienting one’s spirituality' ... In contrast, Harper touches too little upon experiences of anxiety, fear, bewilderment, and loss ... Thus, while it’s an admirable argument that dementia patients exist 'along the continuum of human experience,' this often moving book falls short of being persuasive.