The Story of My Father: A Memoir

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Overview

A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK

In the fall of 1988, Sue Miller found herself caring for her father, James Nichols, once a truly vital man, as he succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease. Beginning an intensely personal journey, she recalls the bitter irony of watching this church historian wrestle with his increasingly befuddled notion of time and meaning. She details the struggles with doctors, her own choices, and the attempt to find a caring response to a disease whose special cruelty...

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Story of My Father: A Memoir

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Overview

A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK

In the fall of 1988, Sue Miller found herself caring for her father, James Nichols, once a truly vital man, as he succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease. Beginning an intensely personal journey, she recalls the bitter irony of watching this church historian wrestle with his increasingly befuddled notion of time and meaning. She details the struggles with doctors, her own choices, and the attempt to find a caring response to a disease whose special cruelty is to diminish the humanity of those it strikes. In luminous prose, Sue Miller has fashioned a compassionate inventory of two lives, a memoir destined to offer comfort to all sons and daughters struggling to make peace with their fathers and with themselves.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
When a novelist is as deft as Sue Miller at underlining the great drama and humanity in the small gestures and circumstances of everyday life, analytical types might surmise that her approach serves as a filter for interpreting her world. Her bestselling The Good Mother can be read as an encapsulation of her feelings about the conflicts of romantic entanglements with child rearing; The Distinguished Guest was a roman à clef about dealing with her charismatic, difficult mother. So her decision to write about her father and his Alzheimer's-induced decline in the form of a memoir indicates the depth of her emotions on this extremely personal matter. In the years before his eventual death, Miller's father, a retired minister, became increasingly unfamiliar to -- and dependant on -- the offspring who had grown up in awe of him. Using this steady decline as a frame for her larger narrative (her father's condition progressed from intermittent forgetfulness, confusion, and strangely charming hallucinations to frightening and violent outbursts), Miller writes touchingly of her father's life, of her place in it, and of his place in hers. At the same time, she discourses about her work, and about the writer's mining her own life experiences for art. In the end, Miller leaves us with a rare result: a book that offers instruction, information, and sympathy for the adult children of Alzheimer's sufferers and real, intuitive expression about the writer's role in experiencing and recording it. Katherine Hottinger
From the Publisher
“Deft, sincere and eloquent. . . With the care, restraint, and consummate skill that define her well-crafted and bestselling fiction, Sue Miller has now written a beautiful, compelling memoir about her father and his downward spiral into the demonic grasp of Alzheimer’s disease.”
—San Francisco Chronicle

“Stunning. . . A remarkable yet self-effacing testament to the vagaries of memory . . . [Miller] turns a man’s simple life and tragic death into a lively and unforgettable narrative.”
—Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Deeply affecting . . . Like any memoir, this one is a way of bringing its subject back to life. . . . [This] beautifully written little book takes on the narrative power of first-rate fiction.”
—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Beautifully written . . . Style and story are so seamlessly fused, and so perfectly balanced, that true clarity emerges."
—The Boston Globe

The New York Times
Novelists, Flaubert said, disappear behind their work. It's safe to say that memoirists do not. The Story of My Father is actually more the story of Sue Miller. Is this why memoirs are so tempting to writers? Because they give us permission to be self-serving? I ask this as someone not immune to the disease: I've written one myself. To put the best face on it, memoirs are testimonials to the private life. But they may owe their popularity to contrary forces — to our contempt for the private and the personal, both of which we seem bent on defiling. We display our secrets on the Web or reveal them to Oprah, anything to dissolve them in the acid bath of public exposure. In this respect, Miller's book should be admired for its struggle between tell-all, all-the-time revelation and the virtues of privacy and reserve. And we may hope that what she hasn't told us here is being saved for a novel. — John Vernon
Publishers Weekly
Miller's first nonfiction book (after While I Was Gone; The World Below; etc.), about caring for her Alzheimer's-afflicted father, is a rare example of an illness memoir with widespread appeal. Prospective readers need not have any interest in Alzheimer's; they need only have parents of their own to appreciate this testimony's dignity and grace. Miller's father, James Nichols, started showing signs of dementia in 1986, when he was picked up by the police after ringing a stranger's doorbell in the middle of the night, announcing he was lost. Miller's careful recounting of James's slow demise and progression through the various stages of an assisted living community are punctuated by pleasant memories and even humor, e.g., when James, a retired religious scholar, assesses his surroundings and comments, "No one ever seems to graduate from here." As she recalls childhood stories and family memories, Miller simultaneously offers a memoir of her own development as a writer. "[T]his is the hardest lesson... for a caregiver: you can never do enough to make a difference in the course of the disease," Miller writes. "We always find ourselves deficient in devotion.... Did you visit once a week? you might have visited twice. Oh, you visited daily? but perhaps he would have done better if you'd kept him at home. In the end all those judgments, those self-judgments, are pointless. This disease is inexorable, cruel. It scoffs at everything." 11 photos. BOMC alternate. (Mar. 19) Forecast: Miller's popularity among women readers of literary works-many whom are probably dealing with aging parents themselves-could shoot this one onto bestseller lists, and Knopf shouldn't have trouble selling out its 75,000 first printing. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This first nonfiction work from novelist Miller (The World Below) is a thoughtful remembrance of her relationship with her father, especially during his later years, when his memory loss caused by Alzheimer's became apparent. It is also a meditation on the meaning of writing in her life. A clergyman and church historian, James Nichols was an occasionally absent but always attentive father during Miller's childhood. Although father and daughter grew apart as she struggled to launch her writing career, their bond rekindled as Nichols's memory impairment became evident and his independence declined. After his diagnosis, she helped him restore an old house and found him assisted living and then nursing home care as he gradually disappeared into a world of hallucinations and delusions that turned increasingly violent. Near the end of his life, Miller realized that "my father's illness would be progressive, no matter what I did. You can never make a difference in the course of the disease." After ten years, many false starts, and two more novels, she finally completed this memoir. While writing enabled her to "snatch him back from the meaninglessness of Alzheimer's," it also deepened her understanding of what her father's disease and death meant to him. More reflective than Eleanor Cooney's Death in Slow Motion, this includes little of the medical information found in Charles P. Pierce's Hard To Forget: An Alzheimer's Story. Miller's very personal account is a marvelous addition to the growing literature of Alzheimer's memoirs and will appeal to fans of her novels as well. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/02.]-Karen McNally Bensing, Benjamin Rose Lib., Cleveland Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In a perfectly pitched memoir, novelist Miller (The World Below, 2001, etc.) movingly depicts the bittersweet emotions provoked by the toll Alzheimer’s exacted on her father. He was an ordained minister and had taught Church History at the University of Chicago and Princeton. Unlike Miller’s volatile, self-absorbed mother, who took greater pleasure in privacy than in maternity, her father was quiet, reserved, and fond of spending time with his four children. He read to them, taught them outdoor skills during their summers in Maine, and had a great gift for listening, giving their conversation his "full, generous, disinterested attention." After the author became a parent herself, she grew closer to her mother, who died suddenly, at the age of 60, in 1979. Miller resumed her old intimacy with her father, showing him her short stories, which were beginning to be published and spending summers with him in New Hampshire fixing up the house he had bought there. In retrospect, she recognizes that he already had Alzheimer’s. He confessed to being unable to read or write since his wife died, but Miller attributed those symptoms to depression. He wore the same clothes often, but he had always been an abstracted man, caught up in the world of ideas. Six years after her mother died, Miller got a phone call from the police, who had found her father wandering around the countryside in western Massachusetts. He was clearly disoriented, and his children realized he could no longer live alone. Miller eventually became responsible for him, visiting almost daily at the nursing home and monitoring his care. She affectingly details his long decline as well as what is known about Alzheimer’s. Writing thismemoir, she finds, brings her consolation; her father, she realizes, had never needed it because of his faith: "for him his life and death already made sense." A loving and eloquent tribute from a talented daughter. (11 photos) First printing of 75,000; Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345455444
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/8/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 328,581
  • Product dimensions: 5.07 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.47 (d)

Meet the Author

Sue Miller is the best-selling author of The World Below, While I Was Gone, The Distinguished Guest, For Love, Family Pictures, Inventing the Abbotts, and The Good Mother. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

Biography

Since her iconic first novel, The Good Mother in 1986, Sue Miller has distinguished herself as one of our most elegant and widely celebrated chroniclers of family life, with a singular gift for laying bare the interior lives of her characters.

While not strictly speaking autobiographical, Miller's fiction is, nonetheless, shaped by her experiences. Born into an academic and ecclesiastical family, she grew up in Chicago's Hyde Park and went to college at Harvard. She was married at 20 and held down a series of odd jobs until her son Ben was born in 1968. She separated from her first husband in 1971, subsequently divorced, and for 13 years was a single parent in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working in day care, taking in roomers, and writing whenever she could.

In these early years, Miller's productivity was directly proportional to her ability to win grants and fellowships. An endowment in 1979 allowed her to enroll in the Creative Writing Program at Boston University. A few of her stories were accepted for publication, and she began teaching in the Boston area. Two additional grants in the 1980s enabled her to concentrate on writing fulltime. Published in 1986, her first novel became an international bestseller.

Since then, success has followed success. Two of Miller's books (The Good Mother and Inventing the Abbots) have been made into feature films; her 1990 novel Family Pictures was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award; Oprah Winfrey selected While I Was Gone for her popular Book Club; and in 2004, a first foray into nonfiction -- the poignant, intensely personal memoir The Story of My Father -- was widely praised for its narrative eloquence and character dramatization.

Miller is a distinguished practitioner of "domestic fiction," a time-honored genre stretching back to Jane Austen, Henry James, and Leo Tolstoy and honed to perfection by such modern literary luminaries as John Updike, Flannery O'Connor, and Richard Ford. A careful observer of quotidian detail, she stretches her novels across the canvas of home and hearth, creating extraordinary stories out of the quiet intimacies of marriage, family, and friendship. In an article written for the New York Times "Writers on Writing" series, she explains: "For me everyday life in the hands of a fine writer seems ... charged with meaning. When I write, I want to bring a sense of that charge, that meaning, to what may fairly be called the domestic."

Good To Know

Here are some fascinating outtakes from our interview with Sue Miller:
  • "I come from a long line of clergy. My father was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian church, though as I grew up, he was primarily an academic at several seminaries -- the University of Chicago, and then Princeton. Both my grandfathers were also ministers, and their fathers too. It goes back farther than that in a more sporadic way."

  • "I spent a year working as a cocktail waitress in a seedy bar just outside New Haven, Connecticut. Think high heels, mesh tights, and the concentrated smell of nicotine. Think of the possible connections of this fact to the first fact, above."

  • "I like northern California, where we've had a second home we're selling -- it's just too far away from Boston. I've had a garden there that has been a delight to create, as the plants are so different from those in New England, which is where I've done most of my gardening. I had to read up on them. I studied Italian gardens too -- the weather is very Mediterranean. I like weeding -- it's almost a form of meditation."

  • "I like little children. I loved working in daycare and talking to kids, learning how they form their ideas about the world's workings -- always intriguing, often funny. I try to have little children in my life, always."

  • "I want to make time to take piano lessons again. I did it for a while as an adult and enjoyed it.

  • "I like to cook and to have people over. I love talking with people over good food and wine. Conversation -- it's one of life's deepest pleasures."
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      1. Hometown:
        Boston, Massachusetts
      1. Date of Birth:
        November 29, 1943
      2. Place of Birth:
        Chicago, Illinois
      1. Education:
        B.A., Radcliffe College, 1964; M.A.T., Wesleyan U., 1965; Ed.M., Harvard U., 1975; M.A. Boston U., 1980

    Interviews & Essays

    A Conversation with Sue Miller

    Q: This is by far the most personal work you've written to date. Was it difficult to reveal your family to your readers?
    A:
    I did feel some sense of responsibility about what I revealed about my family in this book. I tried to be very careful of those members of my family, mostly my siblings, who are still alive -- not to write anything which might wound one of them. I think there are things in the book which may, not because of the way they are presented, but rather that they are painful facts. I felt comfortable writing about my father because I thought he would have liked my making some use for other people out of his illness.

    Q: Did you consider weaving elements of your father's life into a novel or short story instead of writing a nonfiction book about him?
    A:
    In fact, I have woven elements of my father's life—and the lives of almost everyone I know! — into my fiction. I've even woven elements of his illness and the events that happened during his illness into my fiction. There's a section of THE DISTINGUISHED GUEST which I mention in the memoir in which I refer, fictionally, to the way he tore up all his letters to and from my mother. And in FOR LOVE I wrote a passage about my main character's taking dictation for a letter to herself from her mother, something which also happened to me and my father. There are no doubt others which aren't so closely imitative of life, and which I'm less conscious of.

    Q: Your novels are beloved for their seamless and intertwined storylines. Was it difficult to find the narrative thread necessary to tell a real life story?
    A:
    I would bepleased if what you say is true. And certainly one of the great difficulties for me in writing this book was structuring it. I threw away more than I kept, and I reordered everything I kept many times over. In the end, the book moves generally chronologically, but it stops and turns many times to look at issues raised by events going on; or history outside the chronology connected to other events. It took me literally years to figure out how I wanted to do this.

    Q: Your parents were very dramatic people. Please tell us a little about them and their influence on your writing.
    A:
    My mother was dramatic. My father was quiet and gentle, a little dry, certainly primarily intellectual. They made a dramatic contrast, though, and one I think everyone in my family was aware of. Both of them were wonderful writers, exacting and careful with language in very different ways. Both of them were passionate readers. Both believed in the power of language to move and console and redeem the listener, the reader. All of that was a gift to me as a writer.

    Q: When you pieced together memories of your father, did you discover parts of him you'd forgotten or perhaps had never known?
    A:
    A good deal of the book, particularly the last passages of the book, are taken up with this idea, that it is possible to go on learning about someone who has died, to change the way you understand them even after death. That this is one of the ways we continue to be connected to those we love.

    Q: When did you first realize that your father was ill? How long did it take to diagnose his illness as Alzheimer's disease?
    A:
    I think I had a sense fairly soon after my mother's death in 1979 that something was powerfully wrong with my father. He was sixty-five then, and Alzheimer's disease wasn't the first thing I thought of—in fact, depression was. But over time it seemed clear that some degenerative process was at work in him. He wasn't diagnosed, though, until 1986. This was mostly because it wasn't until then that he moved near enough to one of us—my sister, at that point—for her to take charge of seeking a diagnosis. Before then, he'd been in charge of his own medical care, and it seemed he didn't ask about his failures in a way that could have led to being tested.

    Q: What aspect of caring for your father was most difficult?
    A:
    There was no aspect that wasn't difficult, as everything was colored by the illness, even idle moments, even small decisions—to say nothing of large ones. But there were many moments too which were genuinely pleasurable, even towards the end.

    Q: Did you ever have a moment when you thought you couldn't handle the responsibility of caring for him?
    A:
    No. There were moments when I wished I didn't have to, moments when I didn't think I was doing a good job. But I never thought I couldn't do it.

    Q: Your father was a minister. What role did his spirituality play as the disease progressed?
    A:
    This is hard for me to know, exactly. I think early on it helped him enormously to accept that he was ill, and to accept the changes in his life we had to make because of his illness. I'm not sure what it consisted in as he grew more demented—whether you could have said he was still a Christian, for instance. Or a believer, in anything like the way he'd once been. Whether he felt the presence of God, as he'd been sure he did earlier in his life. But he could always be comforted by the language of religion, by prayer in a familiar form, by passages from the Bible read aloud. By hymns. There seemed to be something which stilled him and brought him peace in all of that.

    Q: Do you worry that one day your son may have to care for you in the same way?
    A:
    Of course.

    Q: Do you also wonder how he'll remember you?
    A:
    I don't, really. I feel that my son knows me well—I would say, that he understands me, in most ways. I don't know what changes age may bring to me, and certainly it seems entirely possible that I might eventually end up being changed profoundly, in the way my father was. What my son may make of that, if it happens, will be part of who he is and has become, as well as part of who I am and have been with him.

    Q: Like your novels, there are many levels to this book. It seemed a journey for you, but also a tribute to your father. Do you think you wrote the book more for yourself, or for your father?
    A:
    I think that moved and shifted, more than several times, as I worked through the writing of the book. In the end, I suppose, I think that every book a writer writes, she writes for herself. But I was aware of hoping, as I finished the final revision, that it was a book my father would have liked, would have seen a justification for.

    Q: Are you working on a new novel?
    A:
    I am. Though I've been slow to turn to it.
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    Customer Reviews

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    Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
    • Anonymous

      Posted April 3, 2008

      I didn't want this to end

      This is the first book by Sue Miller that I have read. I work in Cambridge in outpatient psychiatry as a medical secretary so I was really impressed with her beautiful story/explanation of Alzheimer's Disease. I fell in love with her father. It sounds like they were very lucky to have each other. I can't wait to read another book of hers but I hate to see this one end. This is a book that I will buy three copies of and give them to my grown children just in case they ever have to deal with this in our family. Her father would be very proud of her.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted March 5, 2004

      Inspirational!

      I have been a fan of Sue Millers for several years. While searching the internet to see if she had written a book I had not yet read I discovered this treasure. I was and am presently the caregiver to a beloved aunt with this dreadful disease. Her book has given me more inspiration than any other material or books I've read thus far. She tells us in her book she was seeking a sort of release or letting go and she felt her writing her fathers life story, his struggle with Alzheimers, and her role as daughter and primary caregiver might help her to find the resolution she was seeking. She has helped all the caregivers out there that will pick up the book and read it. This story is touching, real, and lovingly written by a daughter that happens to be a truly acceptional author.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted April 11, 2003

      Better than a movie . . .

      I stumbled into my local Barnes and Noble's after work earlier this week, because traffic was so bad. I figured I'd give it time to die down a bit before I finally headed home. It was either there or the video store. But, the video store was on the other side of the road. So, my choice was easy. Anyway, the very first display I encountered had Sue Miller's new book 'The Story of My Father' prominently featured. My own father was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease, so the title alone appealed to me. But, after reading the dustjacket, I knew it was going home with me. Miller's very down-to-earth style of writing made the book a quick read. Indeed, I finished it just 5 hours later. And, what an experience it was! Perhaps, the book's appeal was due to the turmoil my family and I are currently going through. I could certainly identify with the theme. But, I can honestly say that I haven't enjoyed reading anything as much as I did that night. I have no doubt that 'The Story of My Father' was better than any DVD I could have rented that night. And, I actually found myself talking about it with my friends, co-workers, and family members as if it had been a feature film. ('Parts of it made me laugh, parts of it made me cry, etc.') I would highly recommend Miller's book--and not only to those who have dealt with or are currently confronting AD. Don't wait for her to write a screen adaptation!

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    • Anonymous

      Posted May 29, 2003

      Touching Story

      I am also the child of an ALZ afflcted parent. Finding out one is not alone is the greatest hope. Inspirational!!

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    • Anonymous

      Posted March 26, 2003

      Book in Spanish

      I would like to get this book in Spanish, has it been published in Spanish.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted April 8, 2003

      Excellent Read

      Seems to be a perfectly honest account of her personal experience with parent's decline. Not overdone or underdone--a perfect balance in the telling of her experience. A totaly different perspective and it actually gave more information than a strictly 'self-help' book would do for someone dealing with similar situation.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted October 21, 2009

      No text was provided for this review.

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