A Dementia Epidemic

Ever since reading her sweet and mischievous picture book Tell Me A Mitzi to my kids, decades ago, I have loved the writing of Lore Segal. In one of these stories, little Mitzi gets up very early one morning, changes her baby brother, helps him out of his crib, out of their apartment and into a cab to visit their grandparents. Only… she doesn’t know the address, so the driver patiently helps them out of the cab, they go back home, get into bed, and their parents never suspect their travails. In a second story, the little brother, a bit older now and at a parade, complains so loudly about wanting gum that the president of the United States stops his entourage to give the boy a piece. And in the final story, everyone in the household, one by one — including the grandmother who comes to help — gets the flu. With everyone in bed you get a sense of the world falling apart, yet this is all somehow normal, and even amusing.

Perhaps in these, her early stories for children, we can see the seeds of themes — of a child taking on normally adult responsibilities; of the power of words, of speaking up; and of the world seeming to come apart but going on — that have long intrigued the author. In 1938, when she was 10 years old, Segal was, as a Kindertransport child, sent alone by her parents from Vienna to England, where she took upon herself — as per her dad’s instructions — to make every effort to secure the escape of the rest of her family. She eventually made her way to the United States, and two of her novels, Other People’s Houses, and Her First American, tell something of her own life story.

Now we have Segal’s tender and irreverent portrait of old age, Half the Kingdom. This is a sobering yet somehow even hilarious novel, charming and wise. In it, the lives of old friends with histories, long-married couples, elders and their adult children, colleagues, former lovers, friends and friends of friends converge in and around a hospital where everyone over the age of 62 is coming down with dementia, including the senior members of the think tank hired to study this strange and alarming situation.

In one subplot, a gift to the aspiring writers among us, a writer’s manuscript submitted to a magazine has been neither acknowledged nor rejected, and she seems unable to stop herself from patiently inventing new communications, at turns furious and friendly, hopeful and hopeless, to address the indignity of being ignored. She never actually mails the letters she drafts which Segal seamlessly weaves into the main predicament of this novel:

“The ambulance attendant is new at the job. He suspends his pen over the report, which he will hand in when they arrive at the hospital. He is supposed to check either ‘constant’ or ‘when you move’. Next question: “Would you call this a dull or a stabbing pain?” “Dull? Hell hell hell! No, I would not call this pain a dull pain! God. And I would not call it ‘stabbing’.” The man in pain focuses on the pain, the exact location of which he is unable to pinpoint. He compares what he feels with what he understand the word ‘stabbing’ to connote, and stabbing is not what this is, nor is it ‘biting’, ‘shooting’, ‘burning’, ‘searing’, ‘throbbing’, ‘grinding’, or ‘gnawing’. He searches the language and does not find in its vocabulary the word that names this peculiar excruciation. ‘Get me Roget’s Thesaurus!’ shrieks the man in pain.”

Don’t miss this delightfully playful and humane novel.

Naomi Danis is Lilith’s managing editor and author of It’s Tot Shabbat.