Brain in a Jar: Author of book on family’s experience with Alzheimer’s comes to Charlottesville

Brain in a Jar, by Nancy Bercaw. Image courtesy Nancy Bercaw. Brain in a Jar, by Nancy Bercaw. Image courtesy Nancy Bercaw.

Virginia is deep in writer Nancy Bercaw’s blood.

Her mother and father both grew up on family farms in central Virginia, her mother in Culpeper, her father near Palmyra. Like all his brothers, her dad, Beauregard Lee Bercaw, attended UVA. While he was in medical school there, his father began deteriorating. The disease he had wasn’t widely known at the time, but the young Bercaw understood: This was Alzheimer’s. He knew he wanted to devote himself studying it—and eradicating it.

The Bercaw family’s relationship with the disease is the subject of Nancy Bercaw’s book Brain in a Jar. She’ll make a book tour stop in Charlottesville this weekend to read from it. We caught up with the Vermont writer during an earlier stop in Iowa.

“I grew up talking about scary things very easily, and emotion very rarely,” she said. Hers was a household where science and disease were always topics of conversation, even when the facts were frightening. The brain and its decay were part of dinner table talk, but there was one word her father wouldn’t utter. The name of the disease that killed his father, whose atrophied brain floated in a glass jar on Dr. Bercaw’s desk as a reminder of its terrifying power, wouldn’t cross his lips.

“Alzheimer’s disease he would never say by name,” she said. “It was always ‘what my father had.’”

As he got older, Beau Bercaw became more and more fixated on the disease. He didn’t have a high-risk gene profile—tests revealed he and his daughter both had a gene that indicates they may or may not get it—but he became almost obsessed. He took dozens of supplements a day. He spent hours filling in sudoku puzzles, trying to keep his mind sharp.

In the end, it didn’t stop the terrifying march of Alzheimer’s. He was diagnosed in 2009, at the age of 71. He died at 72—the same age his own father lived to.

As she cared for her declining father, Nancy Bercaw’s mind was awash in thoughts of family, of legacy, of disease and inheritance: “Am I born to have Alzheimer’s? Am I born to be a Bercaw? I was grappling with all of that.”

So she wrote about it.

“My father was getting sicker, and I started blogging about it. I realized the blog was sort of becoming a book. I was also thinking I wanted to hold onto memories of my father—the good ones. And Brain in a Jar was born.”

Bercaw will read from her book at 11am Saturday at New Dominion Bookstore on the Downtown Mall. Writing it and sharing it are part of her own personal push back against the disease that’s left its mark on her family.

“My thoughts on the matter are until we have a pharmaceutical cure, we need to have a lot of philosophical debates, and some philosophies for living,” she said. “If I have to live with the possibility of getting Alzheimer’s, I have to have a philosophy for life. And mine is to travel, see the wonders of the world, get everything out of my time on Earth and make so many memories that maybe I can’t remember them all anyway.”