On Vanishing

For fans of Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, Eula Biss’s On Immunity, and Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes AirOn Vanishing offers an essential, empathic exploration of dementia, and in the process asks searching questions about what it means to face our own inevitable vanishing.

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“A compassionate collection of essays examining dementia from an unusually hopeful point of view . . . Harper moves smoothly between abstract reflections and concrete experiences, reflecting often on the effects of dementia on her grandfather and on her relationship with him, her fears that a genetic link to the disease may have been passed down to her, and her encounters with many individuals, all described in strikingly specific terms, surviving dementia in their own ways . . . Moving insights into a situation many will face.” ―Kirkus Reviews

On Vanishing is imbued with rich humanity, laden with good, orderly directions on the mysteries of age and desolation, and freighted with sentences so beautiful and sad, they catch the breath away. Lynn Casteel Harper’s generous text suggests that dementia, apart from the litany of loss it is, might also be, for caregiver and afflicted alike, a chance at love, a way to grow in grace.” ―Thomas Lynch, author of The Depositions

“The best nonfiction opens the mind in ways we didn’t know it needed to be opened. Lynn Casteel Harper does that and more in On Vanishing, a significant contribution to writing on neurodiversity and aging, and a profound and useful corrective to the Western way of thinking about the trajectory of human life.” ―Belle Boggs, author of The Art of Waiting

“This inspiring work takes us far from our often-arrogant efforts to vanquish (cure) dementia to seeing human vanity in another light. How do we envision vanishing and disappearance in the face of progressive cognitive decline? In On Vanishing, Lynn Casteel Harper holds a mirror to society and asks us to reflect . . . Just what does dying with dementia tell us about the human condition, both in the details of individual lives and in the grand scope of society? . . . In these troubled times of environmental deterioration and social injustice, can we learn to create more compassionate civilizations that celebrate caring?” ―Peter J. Whitehouse, MD, author of The Myth of Alzheimer’s

On Vanishing is at once intellectual and soulful, vulnerable and brave. With clear eyes and a steady heart, Harper plumbs the complexities of vanishing―the ways the elderly disappear from society and from this world. Grounded in deep compassion and unwillingness to write off those we so easily forget, Harper’s book elaborates a beautifully meditative and often radically progressive inquiry into the experience of mental decline.” ―Marin Sardy, author of The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia

“Elegantly balancing the intimate and the investigative, Lynn Casteel Harper explores the much-feared disease of dementia, opening a compassionate window into territory that is too-often simplified and reduced…On Vanishing will spark necessarily nuanced conversations within institutions as well as across generations.” ―Elizabeth Rosner, author of Survivor Café

“A marvelous tapestry. On Vanishing is poignant in its personal history, profound in its understanding, and prophetic in its analysis of the ways social norms, values, and systems shape the lives of people with dementia and their loved ones. What’s more, it is beautifully written.” ―Bill Gaventa, author of Disability and Spirituality: Recovering Wholeness

An estimated fifty million people in the world suffer from dementia. Diseases such as Alzheimer’s erase parts of one’s memory but are also often said to erase the self. People don’t simply die from such diseases; they are imagined, in the clichés of our era, as vanishing in plain sight, fading away, or enduring a long goodbye. In On Vanishing, Lynn Casteel Harper, a Baptist minister and nursing home chaplain, investigates the myths and metaphors surrounding dementia and aging, addressing not only the indignities caused by the condition but also by the rhetoric surrounding it. Harper asks essential questions about the nature of our outsized fear of dementia, the stigma this fear may create, and what it might mean for us all to try to “vanish well.”

Weaving together personal stories with theology, history, philosophy, literature, and science, Harper confronts our elemental fears of disappearance and death, drawing on her own experiences with people with dementia both in the American healthcare system and within her own family. In the course of unpacking her own stories and encounters―of leading a prayer group on a dementia unit; of meeting individuals dismissed as “already gone” and finding them still possessed of complex, vital inner lives; of witnessing her grandfather’s final years with Alzheimer’s and discovering her own heightened genetic risk of succumbing to the disease―Harper engages in an exploration of dementia that is unlike anything written before on the subject.

Expanding our understanding of dementia beyond progressive vacancy and dread, On Vanishing makes room for beauty and hope, and opens a space in which we might start to consider better ways of caring for, and thinking about, our fellow human beings. It is a rich and startling work of nonfiction that reveals cognitive change as an essential aspect of what it means to be mortal.