There is a girl who only just recently knew who she was, what she wanted, the dimensions of now. A girl who has a retro-minded best friend and a reputation for ingenious ideas about night snow, urban gardens, and the songs that rise up from Philadelphia streets. She has a mother and a brother, both loved. She has a father obsessed with the Florentine flood of November 1966--that unforeseen spill of the Arno River, that mud that clawed through homes and stores and across the face of Cimabue's "Crucifix," among so many other treasures. This girl has moved with her family to Florence. This girl is losing herself.
It's hard to say, precisely, when she began to peel away. When an obsession with nests and nest building became her terrible secret. When thieving erupted as a necessary part of her existence. When words began to clot and clog and answers became elusive.
It's hard to say when all this started. It's impossible to know how it will end.
In writing the new young adult novel One Thing Stolen (Chronicle Books, April 7, 2015), I chose to spend two years with a fictional character in the early stages of a rare form of frontotemporal dementia--a form that doesn't just result in behavioral and language changes, but also, in the words of a 2008 New York Times article by Sandra Blakeslee, "alter(s) circuits in [patient's] brains, changing the connections between the front and back parts and resulting in a torrent of creativity." I chose, in other words, to dwell with my own greatest fear. The trickery of the mind. The displacement of truth. The reconstitution of character. The disquieting What if?
That I cannot at times retrieve Blake Shelton's name in a flash is annoying and a little disconcerting. (I like the guy. I watch "The Voice." I'd join his team if he'd ask me.) That entire swaths of my eighth-grade year are gone, that I can "see" the auditorium clearly, also the severed frog in the dish, but cannot recall a single book read nor the name of the teacher responsible for my literary advancement, I am frustrated--and achingly hollow. That I can do all the things they say I should--take ballroom dance lessons, sleep more than seems efficient, hook and cross with the rest of the Body Combat babes--and still come up short on the name of the lady who religiously sits beside me in church, I am bewildered. Some of the best among us are conflating fact with fiction. I am alarmed that that may someday (unwittingly) be me.
Where does the truth go? Where is it going? What tangle of dendrites is, right this moment, konking itself out and making room for something either new or absent?
Black holes. Absence. Lies wanting airtime as truths. These things terrify me. I am a mother, a wife, a friend, and a teacher of memoir. I need my past to be well. I need myself.
One Thing Stolen is the story of a teen quietly, tragically fighting this progressive brain disorder. It's a story nested within the frame of that effacing Florentine flood and within the context, too, of the Mud Angels who flocked from all around the world in that November 1966 to unmuck a fabled city and its art. The Mud Angels believed that the paintings, the sculptures, the letters, the books could be salvaged. They believed that color could be returned to one of the most vivid places on earth.
They Mud Angels recognized, as we all must, that if you abandon hope, you abandon possibility.
Is there hope for a mind unspooling? I voted, in One Thing Stolen, with those who study the pliability and plasticity of the human brain and find light inside their research. I voted with Dr. Bruce Miller, the neurologist who directs the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco and is at work on advancing our understanding of dementia as well as the care such patients should receive (and was interviewed for the purposes of my novel). I voted with the Mud Angels and the art restorers who, all those years ago, remained undaunted as they went about their rescue.
I voted, and then, after two years of struggling to write truth into a novel, I went out to dance. More tango, I think (I hope), to avert the tangles.