University of Vermont

Human Resource Services and Operations

Interview: Nancy Stearns Bercaw on Her Book 'Brain in a Jar'

Brain in a Jar book cover
Nancy Stearns Bercaw has worked at UVM in many capacities. She was a staff writer for University Communications from 1996-2001; she was an assistant swim coach from 1999-2001 and again in 2006. Since 2007, Nancy has been a program coordinator for the libraries, also serving as project manager for UVM's most recent 10-year re-accreditation.

Throughout, Nancy has been freelance writer with work appearing from Seven Days to the New York Times. Next month marks the debut of her first book, Brain in a Jar: A Daughter's Journey through Her Father's Memory, published by Broadstone and now available for pre-orders on Amazon. Brain in a Jar officially launches at Phoenix Books in Burlington at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 6. 

UVM Today: Tell about the process of writing your book.

Bercaw: My father, a neurologist, died of Alzheimer's Disease last year. Throughout his illness, I wrote about my memories of him. By doing so, I kept myself sane and his memory alive. I also penned two pieces for the New York Times about my father's fantastic life and his work fighting Alzheimer's in his patients and eventually in himself. One day I realized that it was more than a series of random recollections -- it was a book.

What's behind the title, Brain in a Jar?

My father was in medical school at the University of Virginia when his father began showing signs of memory loss. This was in the '60s back when very few people, let alone doctors, knew the name Alzheimer's disease. My father began studying the mysterious malady, and then decided on neurology as his speciality. Many years later, when his father died of AD, my father put Grandfather's brain in a jar on his office desk -- a visual, visceral remind of what he was fighting. When I was a kid, I didn't find it at all strange that my doctor dad had a brain in a jar on desk. Much later, though, as a young adult, my mother told me the truth, which said so much about my father, and his obsession and our family. 

Do you worry that your father's obsession will become yours?

I think by writing this book, it's already has! I won't actually have a brain in a jar on my desk at work, but I'll have a book by the same title. Inadvertently, I have become him to some degree. 

What kind of reaction have you received to the story?

I am so grateful that early on my story caught the attention of former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, who co-wrote the book's introduction along with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. The two were co-chairs of the 2009 Alzheimer's Study Group, commissioned by the Alzheimer's Association. Brain in a Jar now is attracting attention worldwide. Publishing rights just sold to the Indian Subcontient, and I was recently a guest on John Hockenberry's syndicated show, The Takeaway.  

How did your workplace support you in writing the book? 

The UVM Libraries supported me so much and so well. The dean and many of my colleagues read drafts of the book, and encouraged me. Reference librarians at Dana Medical also helped me find some of my father's published work. It was a team effort!