Diane Ackerman’s Extraordinary Valentine to the Man She Loved

3 February 2017
by Mim Harrison
Editor, Levenger Press and Love of Literacy Luncheon Committee member

Diane Ackerman’s Extraordinary Valentine to the Man She Loved

How our Love of Literacy Luncheon speaker gave her husband back the precious gift he’d lost

“How do I love thee?” begins the famous sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “Let me count the ways.”

Like Browning and her husband, Robert, Diane Ackerman and her husband, Paul West, were a deeply literary couple. Paul, like Diane, was a prolific author, and both of them bantered ceaselessly with one another, reveling in the power and sheer pleasure of words. As one reviewer observed, “words were the oxygen of their love.”

And then that oxygen was sucked right out of their lives. A severe stroke that Paul suffered in 2003 left his body diminished and his mind deracinated from the language he so loved.

“MEM”

Just as April may be the cruelest month, surely the global aphasia that Paul suffered was the cruelest blow. The British-born, voluble Paul—who could have given Shakespeare a run for his money, word-wise—could not understand what people were saying to him. Nor could he speak.

For the man who “collected words like rare buttons,” as Diane wrote, his vocabulary was now reduced to a single sound: “MEM.” No matter the question he tried to answer or the thought he tried to convey, his aphasia reduced it to the rubble of “MEM.”

As love would have it, Diane knew more than most laypeople about neurology, having researched the field extensively for her book An Alchemy of Mind. During grueling months of rehabilitation, she coaxed her husband back into language.

“Cherubim”

When she overheard a speech therapist tell Paul he was incorrect for saying “cherubim” when looking at a picture of an angel, Diane knew she had to take charge. She proceeded to create her own, West-worthy exercises for the logophile she loved.

In 2008, The Shadow Factory was published. The book recounted the agony of Paul’s aphasia and his eventual hard-won return to the world of words—which he considered “magical things,” according to Diane.

Diane was not the author of the book. Paul was.

One hundred names

Part of Diane’s therapy for her husband was reteaching him the way he had once showered her with affectionate names. They were, as Diane described them, one hundred names for love.

Which is why Diane titled her own retelling of Paul’s struggle just that: 100 Names for Love: A Memoir. The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

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Diane Ackerman will speak at the 2017 Love of Literacy Luncheon on Thursday, March 16, at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. For ticket information, please click here or visit http://www.literacypbc.org/event/love-of-literacy-luncheon/.