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Book Review: Before I Forget

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Before I Forget is a memoir co-written by Dan Gasby and his wife, Sag Harbor restaurateur and former supermodel B. Smith. Smith has early-onset Alzheimer’s. The book is a testament to their devotion to each other and their struggle to manage a devastating disease. Book critic Joan Baum has this review: 

I’m impressed, and I didn’t expect to be by a new book on Alzheimer’s. There’s so much out there now about this devastating illness that afflicts over 5.2 million Americans. What could be new or engaging when the best that can be said at the moment is that Alzheimer’s might be managed, slightly, in mild stages, maybe.  

Meanwhile the symptomatic “A's” rule: agitation, amnesia, anxiety, apathy, aphasia. The statistics are depressing: half of the U.S. population over 85 will get Alzheimer’s, typically in an advancing stage. Two out of three victims are women, and blacks are disproportionately more likely to get it than any other demographic.  

But what TV sales executive Dan Gasby has pulled off on behalf of his wife in Before I Forget – part memoir, part how-to-cope – is worth reading. Gasby has been married for 22 years to famed supermodel, restaurateur and national media celebrity B. Smith, who a few years ago in her early 60s began manifesting symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer's. At first, they denied it until the critical moment when B. went missing for 18 hours.

Gasby puts B’s name first as co-author, and some of the most moving parts of the book are her thoughts, simply put. “I don’t want to feel like this. I’ve always been an emotional person, but it’s different. I cry a lot. I don’t know why. . . .” Gasby credits writer and editor Michael Shnayerson, and Harvard Medical School Neurology Professor Rudolph Tanzi who provides accessible accounts of the latest research. There has been progress in identifying brain irregularities in those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but do those images represent causes, effects or just associated manifestations? No one knows yet.  

Gasby dedicates the book to Congress, urging more money for drug research and home care, which he admits he was slow to appreciate, thinking he could be B.’s sole caregiver . . . without getting angry, exhausted and depressed. He knows it’s too late for B., but he’s on a mission to bring awareness to others and press for greater participation, especially blacks, in clinical trials. The book concludes with an annotated list of foundations and organizations involved in genetic research and social services, but throughout, he provides chapter summaries he calls “Lessons Learned” -- what to do, what NOT to do. He also interweaves into the chronological structure wonderful snippets about his wife, the beautiful, gracious, affable style guru some called the black Martha Stewart.

Not only was B. Smith a breakthrough black supermodel, but also, with her restaurants, a breakthrough cultural icon. In Sag Harbor B. Smith’s was the only large black-owned business. In the city, the flagship restaurant was a “beacon of diversity in a town where black and white rarely mixed.” Gasby would now have his beloved wife be a beacon for the cause. His framing of her ordeal, their ordeal, as a personal narrative with universal significance makes Before I Forget...unforgettable.  

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.
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