The Story of My Father

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

A police call from western Massachusetts provided author Sue Miller with the first awareness that her father might be ill. He had rung a stranger’s doorbell in the middle of the night, announcing that he was lost. James Nichols, a retired professor of church history at Princeton Theological Seminary, had become disoriented while driving back to Princeton from his summer home in New Hampshire. That fall he was diagnosed as suffering from probable Alzheimer’s disease.

Alois Alzheimer of Frankfurt, Germany, identified the symptoms of the malady in 1907—memory lapses, confusions, hallucinations, and physical deterioration until the sufferer’s life ends in an almost vegetative state. Nichols gradually developed all the disease’s classic symptoms. Miller stresses, however, that throughout its course, her father—like many Alzheimer patients—retained the basic elements of his personality.

Professor Nichols had always been modest and self-effacing, and he remained similarly undemanding of his caretakers until the end of his life. Placed in a continuing care retirement community, he confused the facility with a university, complaining of his difficulty in preparing lectures, and wondering why no one ever seemed to graduate from the institution. As Nichols slowly deteriorated he began to forget the names of objects, lost his ability to read, became convinced that someone had stolen his personal library, and frightened the nurses by wandering away. Transferred to a nursing home that his children hoped would provide a more structured environment, Nichols rapidly deteriorated in unfamiliar surroundings, becoming incontinent and sometimes violent before his death.

Miller’s powerful memoir of her father’s life and death depicts the terrible course of Alzheimer’s disease and conveys a moving account of the anguish felt by its victim’s families.