The Hartford Courant,
Sunday, February 23, 2003 — Mother's Decline, Honestly Told
Reviewed by Richard Zimler

Courant Books Editor

Mary Durant was an extraordinary woman: an author, an actress, an adventurer, a beauty, a thrice-married mother, the lover of many interesting men, a wit with a taste for the macabre.

She was, her daughter Eleanor Cooney writes in a tribute Mary would surely savor, "hip, cool, brilliant, funny, sane."

Mary is still alive, but that woman is gone now, having been, as Eleanor makes clear, "insidiously replaced by an imposter."

Mary has Alzheimer's disease, and Eleanor tells her story in "Death in Slow Motion." But just as Mary herself was far from ordinary, this book is no typical account of a family forced to cope with a devastating chronic illness.

It contains no inspirational platitudes, no sentimental musings, no selfless children only too glad to shoulder an immense burden. In fact, at times it fairly seethes with bitterness and anger. Eleanor is stun- ningly frank about the frus- trations and heart- break family members feel when a beloved parent loses her grip on reality.

When Eleanor and her brother Tom were growing up, the family lived in Washington, Conn., where they moved in a circle that included Arthur Miller, Alexander Calder, the artist Alexis Chernov and many other talented people.

"There were trysts and tangles that would have made John Cheever blush," Eleanor writes.

Mary's second husband, Tim Durant, a wealthy man with Hollywood connections, had bought them a house there, and they remained after that marriage ended. Eleanor takes us into this rather rarefied world of privilege and bohemian adventures in a series of fascinating anecdotes. (In Calder's house, for instance, one bathroom sported a life-size hand constructed of twisted copper wire with the toilet paper roll perched on its upright middle finger.)

In 1966, Mary married again. She was 44, Michael Harwood was 32 and they were true soul mates. He was an environmentalist and author, and she was a novelist. Together they wrote "On the Road With John Jay Audubon," a prize-winning account in which they traced the great naturalist's travels. In 1989, Mike suddenly died and Mary's grief could not be assuaged. By 1997, when she was 75, it was becoming obvious that something more insidious and unstoppable was underway.

By this time, Eleanor was living in California, and her brother was in Colorado. They were getting disturbing calls from old family friends saying their mother was forgetting the way to familiar houses, denting the car, repeating questions in conversations, drinking a lot, getting taken in by telephone scams. It was an alarming pattern of loss of memory, loss of judgment, loss of personality. And it was rapidly worsening.

And so her children decided that Mary should move to California, where Eleanor and her partner Mitch would set her up in a nearby apartment and look after her. Reality, in the form of Mary's escalating confusion, made a mockery of this plan. Soon she was moved to a cottage on their property, but this was no solution, either.

Eleanor is frank in describing how even the most loving adult child grows resentful and overwhelmingly irritated by this querulous, bewildered, demanding creature with the incessantly repeated questions, the imposter who has replaced the powerful parent they once knew.

"You learn some unpleasant things about yourself," she writes. "You think your love is boundless. What you find is that it's about a half-inch thick, and underneath is a mile of churlish, petty, fretful, ungenerous irascibility."

Soon Eleanor and Mitch were replacing morning orange juice with straight shots of vodka and fighting for moments of respite. Then began the long and harrowing search for a facility they could afford where Mary could live and be treated competently and with dignity.

Eleanor has some harsh words for the families of public figures with Alzheimer's:

"For an extra dimension to the anguish, they should try helplessly watching the person they love break down like Hal the Computer while bills pile up ... and they are striving mightily not to lash out, break things, scream. They should try it without cooks, housekeepers, gated grounds, round-the-clock professional hands-on assistance. They should try it without the sympathy of the world."

Eventually, they did find a place where Mary found a modicum of peace, love and understanding, but the process was grueling. Still, as Eleanor shows us, any successes, no matter how small or fleeting, are triumphs.

The real triumph of this book, however, is the re-creation of Mary at the height of her considerable powers, when she moved through the world with grace and style and talent. That talent is confirmed by a previously unknown short story by Mary that Eleanor finds while cleaning out their old home. It is published at the end of the book and speaks for itself.

"Death in Slow Motion" is a brutally honest, yet remarkably funny and deeply wise book. It is also a powerful testament to the way Mary raised her children to engage the world: with humor, with bravery, with truth.
Copyright 2003, Hartford Courant