Jeffrey Berman is a scholar whose writing and teaching focus on the literature of loss. In 2010 he published “Companionship in Grief,” an examination of memoirs written by Joan Didion, Donald Hall, John Bayley, and others about the death of a spouse. Berman has also written on teaching the literature of bereavement, death-education in classrooms, and writers who commit suicide.
Yet his work is neither heavy nor grim. Having suffered the loss of his wife and having nearly lost his own life when hit by a car, Berman shows a dedication to these subjects that transcends the purely academic. He has found an approach that balances personal experience and disclosure with scholarly discipline and compassionate attention, creating an engaging tone.
Berman’s new book, “Dying in Character,” deals with memoirs written by or about terminally ill individuals. It considers work of authors including Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (“The Wheel of Life”), Harold Brodkey (“This Wild Darkness”), Edward Said (“Out of Place”), Tony Judt (“The Memory Chalet”), and Randy Pausch (“The Last Lecture”), who have written about their own final days. It also considers memoirs about the death of a parent or spouse, by Philip Roth (“Patrimony”), Susan Sontag’s son David Rieff (“Swimming in a Sea of Death), and Roland Barthes (“Mourning Diary”).
Berman’s intention is to explore whether the people involved faced imminent death in ways that expressed continuity with how they lived. This is what he calls “dying in character,” a term that “implies a consistency between the way we live and the way we die. It would be ‘in character’ for those who have loving relationships with relatives and friends to die expressing love and gratitude to these people. So, too, would it be in character for those whose lives were filled with anger, bitterness, rejection, or violence to expire while venting these dark emotions.”
Before dealing with his dozen or so authors in as many chapters, Berman writes one about his own close call with death, which occurred during the time he was writing this book. He had been running with his two dogs “when we were struck from behind by an elderly woman who did not see us.” The impact caused him to crash onto the road headfirst, sustaining gruesome wounds but, fortunately, no brain damage. One of his dogs had to be euthanized.
What works so well in this chapter is his demonstration of the value inherent in writing the memoir as a way of dealing with such significant experience. “I needed to write every detail down so I could impose an order to it, thereby achieving a degree of self-awareness, self-control, and self-mastery.” It also enabled him to share his story. These elements, so crucial to Berman’s coping and comprehension, are at the heart of what the memoirists achieve.
Berman’s brush with death, and his earlier losses, help establish an authority that transcends even his uncontestable academic preparation to write “Dying in Character.” This authority underlies his reading, whether he is identifying the point where Kübler-Ross “becomes an unreliable narrator, relating experiences to us that strain our belief,” or the validity of Harold Brodkey’s elation over how impending death has enriched his life, a “happiness born from courage and lucidity, not self-deception.”
At a time when two of the best-selling nonfiction books in paperback are allegedly true stories of encounters with the afterlife (“Proof of Heaven” and “Heaven Is Real”), Berman’s sharp, compelling study of books that squarely face the true experience of imminent death is an important contribution to the literature of the end of life.Floyd Skloot, author of “In the Shadow of Memory,’’ a memoir of living with brain damage, can be reached at floyd@floyd