Cover of book: The Year My Family Unravelled

Cynthia Dearborn
The Year My Family Unravelled

Dementia has been in the spotlight in recent times, largely because an ageing population has made the disease unignorable. Indeed, we have seen the labelling of a new generation – the “sandwich generation” – to recognise a cohort of middle-aged people caught between caring for their growing children and their ageing parents. Cynthia Dearborn’s The Year My Family Unravelled is a personal account of the challenges of caregiving for the elderly, though in Dearborn’s case she finds herself sandwiched between two countries, Australia and the United States, and two phases of her life, the functional one of her present and the dysfunctional one of her childhood.

The memoir begins with Dearborn learning her father, who lives in Seattle, has had heart bypass surgery. She finds herself in “a freefall of fury and fear – as if in a world devoid of Dad, I too would cease to exist”. It is the first sign not only of the fate of Dearborn’s father, who develops vascular dementia, but also of the vulnerability of Dearborn herself in relation to him. Five years later, Dearborn leaves Australia for the US, where her father’s dementia is deteriorating, hoping to resettle him and her stepmother into a care home. She forsakes her partner and stalls her career to re-engage with a man who is congenial but also enigmatic and volatile: “loving, loveable, violent”.

Films such as Still Alice (2014) and The Father (2020) have represented dementia and the burdens of caregiving, but Dearborn’s memoir is unique and precious for its intimate focus on the relationship between dementia patient and carer. Dearborn unveils the ways in which the caregiver’s return to the family fold can involve a return to the quagmire of childhood. Driven by old fears of abandonment, Dearborn regresses to a placatory role, behaviour that stalls the arrangement of sustainable care for her parents and also her own liberation.

Dearborn’s memoir is also fascinating for its exploration of how dementia can intersect with wilful forgetting. She knows from others that her father’s life was one of extreme deprivation, but when it comes to her father, “nothing has stuck about his own childhood”, meaning that his caginess is entirely familiar.

Dearborn forgoes the polished aesthetic of the aforementioned films for the raggedness of personal truth, but there is poetry here too: a rising and falling chest, for instance, is said to “perform its ancient labour”. However, it is the rawness, the authenticity, of this account that is most compelling and valuable.

Affirm Press, 320pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 1, 2023 as "The Year My Family Unravelled".

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