Death in Slow Motion: A Memoir of a Daughter, Her Mother, and the Beast Called Alzheimer's

Death in Slow Motion: A Memoir of a Daughter, Her Mother, and the Beast Called Alzheimer's

by Eleanor Cooney


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When her once-glamorous and witty novelist-mother got Alzheimer's, Eleanor Cooney moved her from her beloved Connecticut home to California in order to care for her. In tense, searing prose, punctuated with the blackest of humor, Cooney documents the slow erosion of her mother's mind, the powerful bond the two shared, and her own descent into drink and despair.

But the coping mechanism that finally serves this eloquent writer best is writing, the ability to bring to vivid life the memories her mother is losing. As her mother gropes in the gathering darkness for a grip on the world she once loved, succeeding only in conjuring sad fantasies of places and times with her late husband, Cooney revisits their true past. Death in Slow Motion becomes the mesmerizing story of Eleanor's actual childhood, straight out of the pages of John Cheever; the daring and vibrant mother she remembers; and a time that no longer exists for either of them.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060937973
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 02/03/2004
Series: Harper Perennial
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.61(d)

About the Author

Eleanor Cooney has published four novels. She lives in Mendocino, California.

Table of Contents

1God Is a Murderer1
2The Serpent's Tooth12
3The Undead23
4The Belly of the Beast37
5Heart of Glass49
6The Big Bang62
7Wicked, Wicked Ways72
8Our Town81
9Judas Rising100
10Thin Ice115
11Shiva, the Destroyer129
12Hungry Ghosts141
14Old Lace158
15Cry Me a River179
16Sunset, Children ...199
Epilogue: The Hotel California223
Appendix"The Scouts"239

What People are Saying About This

Lewis Lapham

“A strong and honest book.”

Reading Group Guide


Like so many Americans whose parents have Alzheimer's, Eleanor Cooney approached her mother's disease with a combination of fear and hopeful plans. Recording the transformation of the two women, both of them talented writers, Death in Slow Motion raises compelling questions about the elusive dance between wisdom and memory, and between wit and words. As Eleanor becomes the 24-hour caregiver for her mother, this unique memoir also speaks to the issue nearly everyone must confront at some point: how to honor our aging parents in the face of emotional and physical exhaustion.

Geography is Eleanor's first challenge; she and her mother, novelist Mary Durant, had lived thousands of miles apart for years. She decides to move Mary from Connecticut to California, settling her in a cheerful ocean-view apartment just minutes from Eleanor's house. But it is soon apparent that Mary isn't well enough to live on her own at all, and before long she is part of her daughter's household. As months pass, Eleanor begins to realize the maddening limitations of the medical specialists, nursing homes, and insurance companies she had woven into her mother's safety net. Stress and sleep deprivation take their toll, quickly eroding the powerful bond mother and daughter had always shared and endangering Eleanor's relationship with Mitch, her mate of many years. Yet while Mary's mind churns out anxious (and invented) memories, Eleanor revisits her Cheeveresque childhood and finds a new understanding of her roots as a woman of letters.

Unflinching and laced with dark humor, Death in Slow Motion charts a new course through the murky path of dementia. For thisauthor, its destination is the ultimate unknown. We hope that the following lines of inquiry will enhance your discussion of her eloquently recounted journey.

Topics for Discussion
  • What are your first impressions of Mary Durant as she is described through her daughter's eyes? How does your opinion of Eleanor Cooney shift throughout Death in Slow Motion?

  • The chapter titles capture a variety of tones, from anger to deadpan humor. How would you characterize the overall tone of the book? What aspects of Eleanor's experience were exceptional? What aspects seem universal?

  • The book's Connecticut and West Coast settings sharply contrast with one another. Mary loved Connecticut and her lively neighbors so much that she chose them over her second husband's Hollywood home, but Eleanor and her brother associate Connecticut with melancholy. What effect do these opposing landscapes have on the depiction of Mary's life story? What emotions do you associate with the landscape of your youth?

  • Besides the storyline mentioned in the subtitle, "My Mother's Descent into Alzheimer's," what are some of the other transformations described in the book? While Mary descends into the disease, are there any ascendant qualities to this chapter of her life?

  • How might you have reacted to Eleanor's situation if you had been in Mitch's shoes? How do Mary's "supporting men" differ from one another, from her husbands to the male patients at Sheffield House?

  • One of the most wrenching tasks Eleanor faces is the excavation of her mother's possessions from the house in which she'd lived for forty years. The senseless destruction of her mother's favorite typewriters is especially significant. What artifacts best define your life? Describe a meaningful token that you have inherited from a relative.

  • What has your family's approach to eldercare been? Ideally, how would your own final years be spent? What is your opinion of the American system for dealing with long-term illness?

  • The effects of Alzheimer's can be as varied as those afflicted with it. In what ways was Mary's experience with the disease shaped by her former career as a writer? Do you believe that Eleanor's life as a writer prepared her for the challenge of caring for Mary, or did it exacerbate an already difficult situation?

  • Eleanor Cooney has written several works of fiction. Discuss the novelists' techniques that may have influenced her telling of this story.

  • How does Eleanor portray the dynamic between her brother, her mother, and herself? What is the impact of Mary's illness on this tiny family unit?

  • What does Mary's eviction from The Hostel indicate about the extent of her condition? What are your theories about why the brash side of her personality emerges there?

  • Rather than recalling time in a linear way, Eleanor incorporates carefully chosen flashbacks with the present. How does this tactic influence your assessment of the book's characters?

  • What is the effect of ending the book with the anecdote about Mary's overnight stay with another patient? How does this scene compare with your early assumptions about the conclusion?

  • The book's epigraph, a quote from Nelson Algren, begins with the words "all was well." Is "all well" in the final chapter of Death in Slow Motion? About the Author: Eleanor Cooney is the author of four previous books, all coauthored with Daniel Altieri: Deception: A Novel of Mystery and Madness in Ancient China; The Court of the Lion: A Novel of the T'Ang Dynasty; Shangri-La: The Return to the World of the Lost Horizon; and Shore of Pearls: A Tale of Seventh Century China. She lives in Mendocino, California.

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