If you want to be simultaneously touched and horrified, read Lisa Genova’s Still Alice. It is a first novel by Genova, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard. It takes the unique position of writing from the perspective of a 50-year-old woman with early onset Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Alice Howland is a psychology professor at Harvard who begins experiencing moments of confusion and forgetting. The story opens with her forgetting a word during a presentation at a conference. Who among us hasn’t had words, names, details elude us? Even more terrifying to me was when she got disoriented during her routine run and couldn’t remember her way home.
We are carried along in the beginning hoping against hope that her lapses are caused by the onset of menopause or a hectic schedule or not enough sleep. I see myself in the list-making strategy. I know the disconnect I feel when a keyword I jotted down no longer means a thing.
Genova walks us through the appointments with the doctors; first the family doctor, then the neurologist. We are privy to the questions asked and at least in my case, I supply my own answers right along with Alice. We hear the words: John Black, 42 West Street, Brighton.
I find myself trying to remember that information as the question recurs throughout the book. I worry that someday I might not know the answers. I cringe for Alice and any other person going through this process. I’m angry she doesn’t involve her husband sooner. I feel her sorrow as she learns that she has passed on the genetic linkage to at least one of her children.
This book is incredibly powerful in that it, according to those living with Alzheimer’s or observing it, accurately portrays the ravaging of the mind that occurs. It shows the impact on a spouse and children. It shows the embarrassment and distancing that occurs with colleagues, friends, and strangers. It shows the loss of freedom, the increasing reliance on others, the falling away of favourite activities.
Perhaps most poignant is the plan Alice hatches during a more lucid time. She sets her Blackberry to vibrate every morning at eight. At that time she is prompted to answer five questions: what month is it, where do you live, where is your office, when is Anna’s birthday, how many children do you have. ?If you have trouble remembering any of these, go to the file named Butterfly on your computer and follow the instructions there immediately.? We see Alice stockpile medications. We see the quality, accuracy, and detail of her answers decline as the book and her disease progresses. We see a woman who would rather be dead than live with this horrific condition.
Run, don’t walk, to your library or book store and get a copy of this novel. It will inform and terrify you. It will change you forever. It will prompt you to cherish each day, from where I sit.