Paul West

Profiles of Aphasia: Paul West

Paul West was a prolific novelist, writing book after book by playing with words. His New York Times obit described him as having a “Shakespearean vocabulary,” but even that doesn’t touch upon the quirky situations and subject matter that popped up in his creative novels. That vocabulary was reduced to a single sound — mem — after a stroke in 2003, though he continued years later to write what his wife called “the first aphasic memoir.”

We’ve been profiling well-known people with aphasia, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Gabby Giffords. Aphasia can affect anyone; even prolific writers who have a way with words.

After the Stroke

West experienced a language-ending stroke in 2003. His wife, the writer Diane Ackerman, explains in a preface to an essay he wrote for Scientific American:

Paul had had a massive stroke, one tailored to his own private hell. The author of more than 50 stylishly written books, a master of English prose with the largest working vocabulary I’d ever encountered, a man whose life revolved around words, he had suffered brain damage to the key language areas of his brain and could no longer process language in any form. Global aphasia, it’s called — the curse of a perpetual tip-of-the-tongue memory hunt. He understood little of what people said, and all he could utter was the syllable “mem.” Nothing more.

She went on to describe those days with global aphasia in her own book, One Hundreds Names for Love:

Taking words from Paul was like emptying his toy chest, rendering him a deadbeat, switching his identity, severing his umbilical to loved ones and stealing his manna.

That love is what led him to find his way back to writing.

Writing Again

West did intensive speech therapy following the stroke to get back some language. His wife knew how important writing was to his happiness, and she helped him write novels again by having him dictate his thoughts. She led him to fill in the missing words until he was strong enough to write on his own. Five years after his stroke, he published that book as well as three other self-published books before his death in 2015.

As his obit explains:

Before and after his stroke, Mr. West was intoxicated with words, a sworn enemy of minimalism in fiction and a passionate advocate of extravagant language.

Words meant everything to him, and his wife helped him find them again.

Image: Paul West via a Creative Commons license



  • Marjorie Browne
    February 15, 2018 at 10:04 am

    After having a brain tumor removed 5 months ago, I’m still suffering global aphasia. I can’t remember words to use simply in a conversation with anyone, which frustrates me terribly. I apparently suffered some seizures (had trouble remembering that word) after the operation and was prescribed Levetiracetam ( 2000 mg a day) plus Dilantin (400 mg a day), both which, I feel, have made me worse, not better.

  • Anonymous
    February 15, 2018 at 10:26 am

    How wonderful is this story
    My husband has global aphasia but despite speech therapy he is only able to express a few words
    Waiting for a miracle

  • Charlotte Balluff
    February 15, 2018 at 12:18 pm

    My husband suffers from Aphasia after his aneurysm and stroke two and a half years ago. I cant wait to read this book! Sometimes it feels we are in this all alone but I know we are not. Helping others has been a big part of “our” recovery. Dave and I started a support group for Aphasia, A Is For Aphasia. We are finding it really helps us to help others and share our experiences with those who are going through some of the same struggles we are while making new friends and educating ourselves and the other members of the group.

  • Anonymous
    February 15, 2018 at 2:37 pm

    My husband also suffers from global aphasia
    After massive stroke in July 2017. His improvement
    Has been minimal a decorated Korean War vet
    We too are waiting for a miracle although he’s
    In a long term care facility

  • Eric Denlinger
    February 15, 2018 at 9:28 pm

    This is an inspiration. Almost a year ago my then 32 yr old girlfriend Laura was diagnosed with leukemia (apml). A day I’ll never forget and perhaps fortunately, she cannot remember. She was a very respected county prosecutor with a real talent for public speaking and a love for words. Sick with the flu for nearly 2 weeks with random episodes of bleeding gums. A trip to the dentist, followed by a trip to her primary Dr, no answers. Then she calls me at work to bring her to the hospital as she’s feeling worse. 6 hours of waiting in the ER hallway we finally were told after a blood test that she had apml. 4 days later she suffered strokes all throughout her brain and was in a coma. One doctor actually suggested at this point we think about end of life therapy. Thankfully Laura fought and fought and made it through some really rough times. One tube removed from her at a time… She began regaining vision, regaining movement especially on her to right side which was affected more so. For months she spoke in gibberish. United was her first word. She would repeat it over and over. Then car. She suffered both horrible night terrors and hallucinations during the day. As she became able to have therapists work with her, she was quickly diagnosed with aphasia. She has come so far but is learning to read and write all over again. It’s so hard to see her frustration with herself and her at times lack of patience. As she puts it, it was all taken away so fast, everything I’ve worked for. Why must it be so hard to get it back? I have faith she can do it but how long will it take? I know one thing that is for sure and that is I have her back through this. She will not go through this alone (As much as a know she feels alone sometimes).
    Anyway, it’s stories liked yours that keep me hopeful. Thank you. One love.

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