Review by Sandra G. Weems
An artist, scholar, and now memoirist, Ann Millett-Gallant casts her personal narrative in collage-like form, assembling a collection of vignettes both textual and visual that invites the reader to step in a bit closer, interpret the disparate elements, and draw larger meaning from the whole. In Re-Membering: Putting Mind and Body Back Together Following Traumatic Brain Injury (Wisdom House Books, 2016), the author recounts her experiences following the accident that nearly claimed her life, particularly the struggle to piece together her fractured memory. Asserting that her “personal history will never be, and could never be, contained by a linear narrative,” Millett-Gallant has chosen to construct her story in the way she approaches some of her art and conceives of her memory: as a composition of words and images that represent “my ongoing process of integrating the past with present, as well as synthesizing my mental, emotional, and corporeal transformations” (x-xi). Thus, rather than a sustained and closely detailed narrative, the book provides a myriad of glimpses. It comprises four main chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion, each juxtaposing accounts of the author’s recovery with color reproductions and interpretations of her art, discussions of other people’s memoirs, artwork, and scholarly texts, as well as excerpts from journals, emails, medical records, art therapy projects, and other bits of text that, together, provide an alternate view of her life.
The rippling implications of the title, Re-Membering, help Millett-Gallant build her narratorial collage in several ways. First, she must “remember” who she is. Because her accident has damaged her memory, she has struggled to remember vital aspects of her personal and professional identity. Second, Millett-Gallant describes how, as a congenital amputee with unique physical needs, she endured the excruciating musculoskeletal responses that often follow brain injury. Learning again to effectively use her members required extensive physical therapy, multiple refittings of prostheses, and a coming-to-terms with the strength and beauty inherent in her disabled body. A third implied, triumphant meaning in the title is that, as the author contends with these obstacles to her recovery, she discovers newfound strength in old relationships and forges new ones. For example, she overcomes feelings of guilt that help her re-member with her family; she proposes to her boyfriend and becomes a member of a happily married couple. In essence, after prolonged isolation and much hard work, Millett-Gallant emerges into society an altered, but altogether stronger, wiser member who recognizes and embraces her agency.
The collage-like narrative structure Millett-Gallant has employed comes across poignantly and vividly when she draws on the fragments she’s collected from her life, as in Chapter 1. A heart-rending passage from her sister’s journal, for example, written while the author lay comatose with an uncertain prognosis, gives readers insight into both her family’s anguish after the accident and her own humility for the support she received. Other such narrative fragments include her father’s frantic elliptical notes after talking with the surgeon, as well as the dreaded black box of medical bills he later compiled and meticulously organized; these pieces of the story help Millett-Gallant gain a fuller picture of what happened to her and what was then happening with the tension in her relationship with her father. These are strong examples of the phenomenon of “co-authorship” identified by experts in the field of medical humanities. None of us writes our illness narrative alone. Many “authors”—close family members, physicians and nurses, even the impersonal voice on the other end of the phone call to Social Security—help craft the complete story.
Additionally, the artwork Millett-Gallant shares is a rich component of her narrative-collage. In the early days of recovery, before seeking help through art therapy, she turned to art-making intuitively, “as the perfect reentry into my identity as an artist and my interests in how and why disabled people represent themselves” (20). The book includes examples “that illustrate my experiences, but perhaps more importantly…materialize my perceptions of my own body’s therapeutic practices and changes” (72). These pieces of art, and the artist’s interpretations of them, do important work in the memoir. We study the images and are able to visualize and internalize something of artist’s experience. They help us grasp something of the toil of recovery from brain injury, especially for this artist, whose disability presents challenges that intensify and lengthen that process.
The narrative-collage of Re-Membering weakens, regrettably, when the author veers away from her self—or, as we might say, when she is no longer remembering. When the narrative portions segue abruptly into academic textual analysis, delving into general brain injury research, critical theory, and lengthy discussions of other artists’ work, the “chain of associations” (xi) that links the book’s most affecting fragments to the author’s singularity inevitably breaks. The book’s subject, Ann Millett-Gallant, is not the focus of these sections; in these sections, the reader can see nothing of her subjectivity or the memoir.
In the final two sentences of the book, Millett-Gallant identifies her intended audience, which includes “individuals with brain injury and their friends and family” and those who are “interested in art, art therapy, and disability studies” (111). Readers in the latter group especially will find the book a useful text for the questions it raises and answers, questions that are central to current discourse in these disciplines. How can art help the artist heal? How can creating art be therapeutic? How might art therapy, particularly artistic self-representations, empower people with disabilities? The author ably responds to such queries in a text that can be a springboard to further discussion.
Sandra Weems is an Assistant Professor of English at Lincoln Memorial University, teaching British literature, writing, and narrative medicine. Her current research interests include traumatology, caregiver narratives, and the clinical uses of reflective writing.