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Abigail Thomas's Three-Dog Life 

Leader of the Pack

click to enlarge Abigail Thomas - JENNIFER MAY
  • Jennifer May
  • Abigail Thomas

A beagle gets off his leash. It’s an everyday moment that will change whole lives. Abigail Thomas has made a career—two collections of stories, a novel, the acclaimed memoir Safekeeping—out of writing such moments, but this one is different.

Six years later, the beagle barks outside a rambling farmhouse in Woodstock. Two more dogs join in as the front door swings open, emitting a waft of banana bread with warm chocolate chips and blueberries. Thomas is hosting her Wednesday night workshop. The writers—all women tonight—congregate in the kitchen, forking up cake with murmurs of bliss and, refreshingly, no talk of calories: The one writer who doesn’t partake is recovering from a stomach flu. “Bring some home,” suggests one of her colleagues. “But warm it,” says Thomas. “It has to be warm.”

The group migrates into the living room, full of quilt-draped couches and comfortable chairs, a round coffee table piled high with books and a bright ball of wool. Thomas sits sideways on an overstuffed tan armchair, legs dangling over one arm. Her blonde hair spills onto her shoulders, and one of her garden-tanned forearms bears a Southwestern-looking tattoo of a salamander, which she got on her 60th birthday. She is not wearing shoes and her socks don’t match. Or maybe they do: Thomas’s world embraces the different. A closer look at the colorful paintings on every wall reveals primitive brushstrokes, obsessively lettered dense texts, and repeated motifs. Art critics call such works “outsider art.” For Thomas, they are something else: paintings by friends, by people who speak the same language as her husband Rich.

Six years ago, Rich took the beagle for a walk and didn’t come back. Thomas got a call from the doorman of their Upper West Side apartment, telling her that her dog was in the elevator. Rich had been hit by a car.

“His skull is fractured like a spiderweb. Everywhere,” Thomas writes in her mesmerizing new memoir, A Three Dog Life. The police report listed Rich as “dead, or likely to die.” But he beat the odds, surviving multiple brain surgeries. For a few eerie days, he seemed almost himself. Then he fell into a spiral of unpredictable rages, paranoid outbursts, and fragmented perceptions, losing all sense of time and even the shortest-term memory.

“Rich is lodged in a single moment and it never tips into the next,” Thomas writes. “I got stuck with the past and the future. That’s my half of this bad hand. I know what happened and I never get used to it.”

Eventually, Rich was transferred to a facility for patients with traumatic brain injury in Lake Katrine, and Thomas moved upstate to be near him. A Three Dog Life is the story of coming to grips with a reconfigured life, of unspeakable loss and precious, hard-won independence. Stephen King called it, “The best memoir I have ever read. This book is a punch to the heart.” (It’s also unexpectedly funny, as when Thomas writes, “Sometimes it’s all I can do to brush my teeth, toothpaste is just too stimulating.”)

“It’s so hard to talk about Rich,” she says now. “It’s such a fluid situation. There’s no answer to ‘How is Rich?’ The only way to get it so I can understand it is to write it down.” She wrote first in diaries, with no thought of publishing. Then an editor at Elle asked her to write a short piece about grief, which became the memoir’s first essay, “How It All Happened.”

Both Safekeeping and A Three Dog Life are composed of short, discrete essays, which, taken together, form a complex pattern. This format may have a genetic antecedent: Lewis’s father was National Book Award-winning scientist Lewis Thomas, whose bestsellers Lives of a Cell and The Snail and the Medusa are structured the same way.

“I have no memory for ordinary chronology, and really no interest in it. I don’t even believe in it. How do we know we’re going forward? We might all just be in this broth, rolling around, and time isn’t going anywhere,” Thomas claims. She calls Safekeeping “an unmoir, because I have no memory, except for moments.”

Those moments gleam. Thomas’s writings are often compared to stained glass, collage, quilts—art objects assembled from fragments. Like Grace Paley, Tillie Olsen, or Alice Munro, she speaks in an unvarnished language of quirky plain truth, quintessentially female, collecting the glittering tidbits of everyday life like a magpie. Thomas didn’t start writing until her late 40s. Pregnant at 18, she was expelled from Bryn Mawr in her freshman year (her boyfriend was not asked to leave). They got married and “spent a miserable eight years together.” She spent the next years raising children, remarrying, and battling depression.

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  • Nina Shengold discusses Abigail Thomas's memoir about love, guilt, and fractured lives.

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