” Is the part of my brain that’s responsible for my unique ‘me-ness’ vulnerable to this disease? Or is my identity something that transcends neurons, proteins, and defective molecules of DNA? Is my soul and spirit immune to the ravages of Alzheimer’s? I believe it is. “
Alice Howland, at 50, has it all. She’s a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard and a word-renowned expert in linguistics with a successful husband and three grown children. When she begins to have memory lapses—a loose sense of what she wants to say in lecture, disorientation during a jog in Harvard Square—the tragic diagnosis of an early onset of Alzheimer’s disease changes her life. Alice’s smarts and self-reliance are a point of pride. They are how she coped after her alcoholic father killed her mother and sister in a car accident.
She’d always been addressed with great respect. If her mental prowess became increasingly replaced with mental illness, what would replace the great respect? Pity? Condescension? Embarrassment? (96)
So when her hyperlucidity goes, when the distance begins to lengthen between she she thinks and the words that express it, the question hangs: Will Alice, at the end of this degeneration, still exist? Still Alice is neither melodramatic nor emotionally manipulative, but is a deeply moving psychological portrait of a woman’s deteriorating mind and how this gradually affects her relationships with the people around her. It’s an honest account of an intelligent woman suddenly finding that she can no longer rely on her mind, and she tries everyday to hold onto her memories, her sense of understanding. It’s a terrifying journey into what it must be like to know one is slowly losing pieces of himself day by day.
My yesterdays are disappearing, and my tomorrows are uncertain, so what do I live for? I live for each day. I live in the moment. (293)
Her husband John, a cancer research scientist, is loving and supportive at first, but becomes more concerned with his career as his wife’s symptoms worsen. He’s rather a dull man who doesn’t know how to cope. Alice, over time, does come to understand and reconcile with her youngest daughter Lydia, who breaks from family tradition by skipping college to become an actress. She is thinking like an actress, as well as a daughter, when she presses her mother for a view of Alzheimer’s from the inside.
The book conveys a sense of hopelessness, since all one can do is sit around and wait for the mind to deteriorate. I’m not aware that Genova holds a Harvard PhD in neuroscience until I finish the book, but there is a surety and confidence in her scientific explanations of the disease. The book can be frightening on a biological and psychological level. Alzheimer’s doesn’t make one forget memories, it goes in and completely destroys memories, as if they were never there. The book is sad but it does leave reader with a glimpse of light in the darkness too. When memories of one’s life go, one relies on love. Love provides that lost context.
336 pp. Simon & Schuster. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]