‘In Love’ Review: A Powerful Memoir About Marriage and Assisted Suicide

A Memoir of Love and Loss
By Amy Bloom
224 pages. Random House. $27.

Amy Bloom and Brian Ameche were a handsome couple. I know this not because there’s a photograph of them in Bloom’s new memoir, “In Love,” about his Alzheimer’s and their search for a painless and dignified way for him to end his life. There isn’t.

I know this because I was so moved by Bloom’s bittersweet, truth-dealing book that I looked them up and read whatever I could find.

She’s a novelist and psychotherapist who’s taught at Yale and now at Wesleyan. He was an architect who played football at Yale. His father was Alan Ameche, “The Horse,” who won the Heisman Trophy in 1954 and played with the Baltimore Colts.

I’m not sure why I hadn’t until now read Bloom’s fiction. Maybe her soft, generic titles — “Come to Me,” “Love Invents Us,” “Lucky Us” — were a deterrent. The title of this memoir is similar.

Not reading her: my loss. Bloom has one of those warm, wised-up, tolerantly misanthropic New York voices, in the manner of Laurie Colwin and Sloane Crosley and Allegra Goodman and Nora Ephron, and an ability to deepen her tone at will. I am not, as are these writers, Jewish. But when I read them I feel I’ve found my people.

Bloom and Ameche met in late middle age; each was in an unhappy relationship. They blew up their lives and moved in together.

They lived in what sounds like enormous happiness just outside New Haven, Conn., for a decade or so until Brian, in his mid-60s, began forgetting things. He would get lost on his way to places. His personality changed; he grew more distant. He stopped reading. His handwriting wasn’t the same.

The couple saw neurologists, and the news was not good. Brian almost certainly had Alzheimer’s, he was told, and had probably had it for several years. “It took Brian less than a week to decide,” Bloom writes, “that the ‘long goodbye’ of Alzheimer’s was not for him.”

(An aside: Ameche took the clock-drawing test. You might know about this test, but I didn’t. Bloom prints it: Please draw a clock face, placing all the numbers on it. Now set the time to 10 past 11.

She writes, “If you can’t ace the clock-drawing test, you probably have some kind of cognitive dysfunction.” I’m sure I won’t be alone in quickly drawing this clock in the margins of “In Love.”)

In her novel “Summerwater,” the English writer Sarah Moss made a joke about how easy it is to commit suicide in America. Just find a cop, she wrote, and start acting crazy.

Bloom and her husband found that trying to end one’s life in America, in a rational and pain-free manner, isn’t easy at all. Even in states with so-called “right to die” laws, the obstacles are nearly insurmountable unless the surviving spouse intends to wind up in shackles.

Humans might be the only mammals with advance knowledge of their own ends, yet unlike even pets we lack the right to merciful deaths.

“People who do wish to end their lives and shorten their period of great suffering and loss — those people are out of luck in the United States of America,” Bloom writes.

Her book is a reminder that so many of us harbor end-of-life fantasies. We know what these conversations are like, those of us over 50, late in the evenings, over wine. We’ll all push each other gently off boats, etc.

Indeed, an old friend said to Brian: “I can just shoot you myself, in a year or two, in a field.” They hugged.

One of Ameche’s brothers made the same offer. He was reminded he might go to prison. He joked: “I’d be fine in jail. I don’t go out much anyway.” Bloom writes: “I have never liked the man more.”

Bloom and Ameche discovered a Swiss nonprofit organization called Dignitas that’s been in operation for more than two decades. It is “the only place in the world,” she writes, “for painless, peaceful and legal suicide.”

The screening was laborious. Many letters and forms, from psychologists and others, were required. Bloom compares the process to trying to get a kid into Harvard, only knowing that when you do, they’ll kill him.

Interviews in Zurich were a final hurdle. From Brian, Dignitas most wanted to sense “discernment.”

Bloom tells this story with grace and tact. Scenes of their trip to Zurich are shuffled with scenes from their courtship and marriage.

Not long after they met, Ameche delivered to her a small speech that’s as good as any I’ve witnessed in a romantic comedy.

“You should be with a guy who doesn’t mind that you’re smarter than he is, who doesn’t mind that most of the time, you’ll be the main event,” he said. “You need to be with a guy who supports how hard you work and who’ll bring you a cup of coffee late at night. I don’t know if I can be that guy” — he broke into tears — “but I’d like a shot.”

The ensuing paragraph reads in its entirety: “We married.”

Their lives were dotted with the minor luxuries of the progressive and affluent. They’re the kind of people who know the local lady who makes her own Thai barbecue sauce; they notice when Rachel Maddow changes her shade of lip gloss; Bloom once had a second refrigerator devoted solely to condiments.

One sign Brian was changing: his taste started to falter. This was funny until it wasn’t. He began to buy Bloom jewelry, she writes, “so far from my taste that, if he were a different man, I’d think he was keeping a Seventies-boho, broke-ass mistress in Westville and gave me the enameled copper earrings and bangle he bought for her, by mistake.”

There are a lot of tears in this memoir. A not-untypical line is, “I am crying like my face is broken.”

In its size and tone and Yale-centricity, this book reminded me of Calvin Trillin’s “Remembering Denny.” Brian was so tall and handsome, in college, that his nickname was Thor. He had a big laugh; people liked to be around him.

Part of what makes this book moving is Bloom’s toughness. She’s a mama bear, in the right ways. She doesn’t go overboard in explaining her moral reasoning. She doesn’t have to. Her title is her explanation.

She implicitly understood when her husband said, “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”

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