My mother's beautiful, broken brain

Her mother died at age 74, after two decades of knowing that "something was going wrong.” In her new memoir, Ann Hedreen tells her mother's story - and her own.
Crosscut archive image.

Author Ann Hedreen's memoir of her mother.

Her mother died at age 74, after two decades of knowing that "something was going wrong.” In her new memoir, Ann Hedreen tells her mother's story - and her own.

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from author Ann Hedreen's new memoir "Her Beautiful Brain." She will be reading from the book on Sunday, September 7th, 3 p.m., at the Elliott Bay Bookstore.

I had a new nightmare: I was suffocating in the giant breasts of Miss Weis, as she surrounded me and contorted my fingers into unnatural positions and — from just next to my ear — yelled her commands to the class. “Ready, go! The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.  Faster! The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. Faster! The quick brown fox…”

Louder and louder she shouted, as I struggled for breath, trapped inside her titanic bosom. Gone were the old dreams of giant spiders under my bed or my braces being tightened by a plumber’s wrench. Miss Weis now reigned supreme over my nights, screaming about the Quick Brown Fox and the lazy dog, predicting my doomed future: unable to get a good secretarial job, I would wander the earth in search of work as a waitress, a maid, a janitor. 

It was 1969. I was 12 years old. Fall semester, eighth grade, Nathan Eckstein Junior High School, Seattle, Washington. I had no future because I could not type. 

Ah, Miss Weis! You saw my clumsy fingers and you feared for me. You sized up my pointy tortoise shell glasses and my mouth full of braces and yes, you feared for me. You knew that girls like me had to learn to type. You knew that all that noise about times allegedly a-changing was just that, noise, and that your mission was to form the fingers of vulnerable girls, to train their hands, before their heads got all filled up with this all new noise about college and careers and, God forbid, Women’s Lib.

Ah, Miss Weis. You gave me my first C.  Maybe you grieved for me a little as you noted it in your ledger. But then you moved on to the next semester: six more class periods, 30 students per period.  A few boys, but you ignored them, those lazy dogs, because you knew they didn’t need you. The girls needed you.    

And I moved on too, like a quick brown fox, running as fast as I could from the future as envisioned by Miss Weis. 

And the times, they did change. Fancy east coast colleges decided they wanted geographic diversity and public school kids, and Wellesley College gave me a scholarship. 

Crosscut archive image.And typewriters changed too. Correct-tape was invented, thank the Lord.  Electric typewriters were now affordable, and Mom gave me a little blue Royal as a high school graduation present. And, just as Miss Weis had predicted, typing kept my body and soul together. I typed all of one summer at my grandfather’s insurance company, convinced I was going crazy.  But by the end of that summer I was able to type faster than I could think.  At college, I typed other girls’ papers for cash. After college, my first job title was “secretary” at a Boston publishing company, where I was given charge of my very own Queen of All Typewriters, the IBM Selectric. Miss Weis would have been astounded by the speeds I reached: 60, 70, 100 words per minute. Fingers flying, hands properly arched, off I went, typing my way into adulthood. 

Just as my mom had, a quarter century earlier. Divorced, with two small children and one year at the University of Montana, it was her typing and her math skills that got her in the door at a life insurance company.  

When I was 21 and in that first job, smarting a little every time I saw the word “secretary” next to my freshly graduated name, there was a part of me that felt defeated by the world, by the fact that I was doing exactly what my mother had done to stay alive, back in the dark ages of the early fifties. There was a part of me that felt ashamed for having taken the Little, Brown personnel director at her word when she explained that “all of our young women start as secretaries, while our young men start as sales reps.” It was 1978.  I should have stormed out of the office. Many of my Wellesley classmates would have. But I was paying my own rent, and I was being offered a job in publishing, and I took it. And though it wasn’t right or fair that it was the ONLY start offered me by personnel director Cindy Cool (her real name), it was a start. 

A start I never would have gotten without Miss Weis and her metronome and her quick brown fox.

Fast-forward 30-plus years, and my husband and I are walking around a little building in south Seattle called the Telephone Museum. We are there because we’re making a documentary film about Alzheimer’s Disease, which has been hard at work destroying my mom’s brain for at least a decade. We’re looking for visual metaphors and they are everywhere: colorful tangles of cables, rows of big black switches with labels like Data and Memory. Then we see an old teletype machine.  We both spent most of the 1980s in newsrooms, so a teletype evokes a visceral reaction for us, a cascade of all the events we first saw in staccato type beating down on rolls of newsprint: John Lennon murdered. Challenger exploded.  Grenada invaded.  

“Could you turn it on?” we ask.

“Sure,” our guide, a retired phone company lifer, responds. The machine, which is the size of a snowmobile, hums to life. Then he presses the red Test button and the beautiful clacking begins, and we see the test sentence: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Carriage return, repeat. “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Return, repeat. Over and over again, in 12-point Courier type.  We are hypnotized. 

“Could you make it screw up?” my husband asks.

We watch as our guide hits “repeat” before the full test line is typed. The keys falter and jam. He does it again and then again. Soon, there’s a pileup of a dozen keys and a black blot of text on newsprint. 

Quick Brown Fox becomes the title of our film.

It wasn’t obvious enough, we were told. It will hurt sales. And maybe it did. But we stuck by it. The sight of the keys jamming on an old teletype said everything we needed to say in one image about Alzheimer’s disease.

And it said more. For all the generations of women who typed to feed their children, to get through college, to survive, the words Quick Brown Fox said struggle and survival. They said, This life does not deserve to end in the jammed keys and black ink of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Computers have put the secretaries and the Miss Weises of the world out of a job. Now, executives bend their groomed fingers around smart phones and our children type faster than we do.

But these are boom times for Alzheimer’s disease. 

My mother was 74 when she died after nearly two decades of first knowing that “something was going wrong” and then knowing that she had Alzheimer’s disease. She had always planned to write her own story. Instead, her life ended wordlessly, all connections between brain and speech finally severed. Not for lack of trying: she had labored mightily to keep communicating, in English, then gibberish, then smiles and hums, just as she had tried to keep walking, feeding herself, focusing on a photo or a face, until it was as utterly impossible for her as turning on the TV when the power’s out. No current means no current: you can’t blow on it like a little bit of kindling and paper and make it spark. 

Mom’s last years were her own version of the Miss Weis nightmare, though she was suffocated not by giant breasts but by plaques and tangles that made her efforts to write or speak as useless as typing and typing while the keys tripped and jammed, the letters melting into a black puddle, the paper itself tearing from the weight of the pooling ink, nothing she wanted to say ever getting said. Her Alzheimer’s disease was not a blank page, it was a sticky swamp.

I want to tell the story that I think she wanted to tell. It’s her story, but it’s mine too. The film we made was the first step. Now, I am sitting down at the keyboard to type. To write all that we couldn’t say in the film. At least, thanks to Miss Weis, I know my fingers can keep up.


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