“What sort of things do you remember best?” Alice ventured to ask.
“Oh, things that happened the week after next,” the Queen replied in a careless tone.
— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
In Wonderland, memories are magical. In real life, mangled brain cells get in the way.
“I think memory is everything, really,” said Zoe Murdock of Ojai. “If we don’t have our memories, I don’t know if we’re even a person.”
Murdock explores the meaning of memory in her new novel, Man in the Mirror, featuring a main character who grapples with a problem usually reserved for nonfiction: Alzheimer’s disease.
Murdock wrote the book after watching her own father start to succumb to the disease more than 10 years ago. Aaron Young, the main character in Man in the Mirror, shares a few traits with her father other than Alzheimer’s: He’s a drywall worker who lives in Utah, spent time flying airplanes in India during World War II, and loves the desert. But the similarities end there, Murdock said.
“I didn’t want to write a story of my father’s life,” she said. “I wanted to know what the experience of Alzheimer’s felt like, then create and live with a character, and not get distracted by what really happened.”
What inspired her most, Murdock said, were times when she saw her father “having these little moments of enlightenment, when he was experiencing the present moment, but couldn’t express it well because he didn’t have the language.”
Murdock recalled visiting him at his home in Salt Lake City, where she was born and raised, and he suddenly exclaimed, “Did you see it? It was up on the mountain, above me, all around me,” as tears streamed down his face. She had no idea what he saw, but sensed that it was something extraordinary.
Murdock, also the author of a novel about polygamy, Torn by God, has long been fascinated with the mind. “Since I was 11, I’ve been interested in people’s minds and how their experiences affect what they do, say and believe,” she said. As an undergraduate in college she designed her own major: human cognition.
Murdock and her husband, Everett E. “Doc” Murdock, have been teaching an ongoing writing workshop at the Ojai Library for 13 years, since they moved to the area. The couple met in the creative writing program at the University of Utah.
To delve into the mind of a man with Alzheimer’s, Murdock said she researched the illness extensively, including the lives of those who had the disease and could express what was happening to them. She studied an artist who created self-portraits as he progressed through the disease, for example, and a man who was given a tape recorder to dictate his experiences.
Eventually, the man with the tape recorder “wasn’t able to say things,” Murdock said. “It gave me an idea of how the language starts to break down, and his life and ability to do anything was taken away from him.”
In her novel, Aaron’s slide into memory loss begins just as he starts to remember and clearly see parts of his life that he’s never explored. Aaron thought he had a strong relationship with his late wife, for example, until he found a book of poems she wrote that suggested otherwise.
Murdock said that when she read the final version of her manuscript, she realized that the novel “wasn’t just about Alzheimer’s, but about getting old and losing control of your life. Everybody goes through that.”
Which all sounds a bit depressing and scary, but the book is not a downer, and has many light moments.
As Aaron’s memories fade, Murdock said, “He still exists, like an enlightened person, living inside the present moment.”
She paused. “But eventually, that breaks down too.”
Zoe Murdock will discuss her writing process and read excerpts from Man in the Mirror on Tuesday, Oct. 4, at 6 p.m. at E. P. Foster Library, 651 E. Main St., Ventura. A follow-up event will also be offered in November. For more information, contact Deya Terrafranca at 648-2716. Man in the Mirror (H.O.T. Press) will be offered at a discounted price during the reading, and is available in print and electronically through Amazon.com.