In Edgar Allen’s Poe’s terrifying story, “A Premature Burial,” the narrator describes a horrible fantasy about being buried alive. Although it’s just a waking nightmare, the experience could be likened to what happened to poet/fiction writer Floyd Skloot.
In his 40s, he was stricken with a virus that severely impaired his cognitive abilities. For a time, he was trapped inside an illness that decimated his communication skills. Writing brought him back to his life, to himself.
As he outlines in this his third memoir, a collection of essays, he has permanently lost the ability to write poetry and fiction. He describes the loss of his future fiction characters, “The lesions on my brain, holes scattered throughout the cerebral cortex, were where I believed those voices had gone.”
In some respects, something else came in through the holes. That is his memories from his past. He explains in his preface that he can’t remember things in chronological order. Yet, his recollections are rich with detail.
In the title essay of the collection, “The Wink of the Zenith,” Skloot takes us back to the days of black and white television channels. The television set was Skloot’s ticket to never never land. “A presence from within the mysterious distances of Television was, I sometimes imagined, trying to send me a message, trying to reach me, share a vital truth. I welcomed the wink of the Zenith.”
Often, television was where Skloot found his heroes. Like many of us baby boomers, he was impressed by Palladin’s code of honor and by Peter Gunn’s hip wit.
Skloot uses the television as a metaphor for his adolescence. “The vertical hold went wild. I couldn’t steady.” This description also presages the havoc the virus would wreak on his mind.
In addition, Skloot used television to escape from his abusive mother. After the death of her husband, she began to physically abuse her youngest son. Television escapism helped him cope.
A teenager when his father died, Skloot was often left alone for weeks by his mother. She went on cruises in search of a second husband. Skloot recounts how she would leave him TV dinners instead of groceries because she didn’t want him to dirty the kitchen. When she came home and found crumbs or anything out of order in the kitchen, she would beat him. Other times, she would slap his face or pinch him, or call him names.
Despite this, he learned how to cook. Preparing meals is one of the ways that Skloot began healing his psyche during that period of his life. He explains that he is still a good cook. The food nourished his body. In his mid-teens, he discovered writing and that comforted his soul and later afforded him a livelihood.
While in college, Skloot was very fortunate to be chosen as the reader for his blind professor and later mentor Robert Russell. As a result of this work-study job, Skloot read/recorded numerous novels, poems, and short stories for Prof. Russell. This work enabled Skloot to develop exemplary skills as a reader, critic, and a writer.
In his essay, “When the Clock Stops,” Skloot critiques Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. “There were voices—a chorus of voices—to distinguish, and levels of feeling to express that were somehow tied to the language of each character.”
In some ways, the reader has a similar experience with Skloot’s voice as it changes in each essay to suit that time in his life.
In one, he talks about his childhood experiences at summer camp. There is a joyful sense of wonder and expectation. In the next, he talks about his first marriage. He is a mature man with growing responsibilities and a sense of purpose.
The essays move like his mind moves now. There is no continuity. Everything here is in the moment. The reader experiences first-hand what it’s like to have shattered memory. It can be frustrating, and yet Skloot charts a course for how to get back to who you are.
Over the twenty years after his illness, he used music from his youth, compilations of television programs, out-of-print novels to regain his memory and his writer self. Readers of his earlier poems and essays sent him emails about the subjects of his work. Their recall helped him reactivate his.
His journey back is also a cautionary tale. He doesn’t bring back baggage that he doesn’t need. He sees a correlation between his rise out of and his mother’s fall into memory loss, specifically dementia.
In the essay, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” his mother often sings classic ballads as she sits in her chair all day in the nursing home. When Skloot and his second wife visit, they sing along with her. He is trying to connect with his mother because he never felt connected to her. It is painful to read how hard he tries to reach out to her because he knows full well that she is beyond his (or anybody’s) reach.
Toward the end of her life, he is able to piece together parts of her memories. However, as he describes her behavior, it appears his mother had undiagnosed dementia for many years. Maybe Skloot doesn’t see this, but he leaves a trail for the reader to follow.
He doesn’t want to let her go. It becomes apparent that despite her treatment of him, he doesn’t waste time judging her. He is restoring and reshaping his life. In moving to wholeness, he never considers bitterness or recrimination.
Instead he imparts a discovery. “…this experience of memory loss lifted me out of myself, and made me part of something larger. Not just the community of the sick, but the wider community of selves.”
The reader will learn much more too, like the value of resilience, the balm that is love, the importance of self-acceptance. The book demonstrates Skloot’s unswerving belief in his craft. He was willing to reinvent himself as a writer, but he never doubted that he is one. Like the narrator in Poe’s story, Skloot overcame a terrifying experience. From it, he learned to navigate a course back to who he is and to embrace his ever present creative abilities.