At the end of this short novel by May Sarton, I knew a few things about Caroline Spencer’s time at the Twin Elms rest home. I knew that Caro was miserable there. I knew the care she and other residents received was substandard. But the details of her poor care? Those are fuzzy.
Caro, a 76-year-old retired schoolteacher, reveals right at the start that she might not be the most reliable narrator:
I am forcing myself to get everything clear in my mind by writing it down so I know where I am at. There is no reality now except what I can sustain inside me. My memory is failing. I have to hang onto every scrap of information I have to keep my sanity, and it is for that purpose that I am keeping a journal. Then if I forget things later, I can always go back and read them here.
In this journal, Caro documents the rough treatment she and other residents receive at Twin Elms, which she calls “a concentration camp for the old.” She has no privacy, few options for entertainment, and hardly anyone to talk to. The food is terrible and the rooms dirty. Her letters are read by the staff before they’re sent, and she wonders whether some that sent to her are withheld. She knows some of her visitors have been turned away.
Even though Caroline admits her mind is failing, the kind of abuse she documents seems so tragically likely that it’s easy to believe her. And when some kind visitors intervene, we receive substantiation that the care is poor. And yet…
Caroline Spencer is a snobby woman, left in the company and care of people she believes are beneath her. She was brought there partly because her snobbery made her sister-in-law miserable. If the only reality she has is in her own mind, how real are the reflections in her journal?
I admit that I am the sort of reader who sees unreliable narrators everywhere. It was not until nearly the end of this book that I really started to doubt Caro’s account. One little contradiction, an accusation that is clearly false, and her whole story was cast into doubt. But should it have been? Would getting one detail wrong, forgetting one fact, make the whole story false? Of course not. But it does show how faulty memory is and how easy it could be to take advantage of someone whose mind is going.
Regardless of which details in Caro’s account are true, her story reveals just how much impact small cruelties—and small kindnesses—can have on a vulnerable person. Rough handling while having your hair washed can feel like torture, not just because it’s painful but because of the indignity of not being able to do it yourself. And a gentle touch and a flower on a breakfast tray become sources of great comfort, so much so that the person who makes these small gestures can become a shining beacon of hope.
This story plays on so many fears about aging and what it’s like to lose control of your body and mind. Caro is a victim of so many forces, and there’s no good way to fight back. She has moments of triumph against all her enemies, but there’s no way for her to achieve a lasting victory, at least not one that would look like victory to most people. But Caro is a woman who fights, and that’s just what she does. Her way may not be sane, but when you’re in her mind, seeing what she sees and feeling what she feels, it makes sense. It feels like a victory.
This the first novel by May Sarton that I’ve read (recommended to me by Thomas), and I loved it. I have her final novel The Education of Harriet Hatfield on my shelf already. (Harriet Hatfield is the name of the cruel caregiver in this novel. Is it the same woman? The plots don’t seem connected, based on the description.) I’m sure I’ll read more and welcome suggestions!