Monday, September 12, 2011

Still Alice

Still Alice, by Lisa Genova, is a terrifying and touching book describing the onslaught of early-onset Alzheimer's. 

Alice Howland is a brilliant Harvard psychology professor, successful in her career, with a beloved and supportive husband, three children, a wonderful summer home - in short, a perfect life.   She manages a hectic and demanding schedule of teaching and international public speaking, and the day-to-day tasks like finding the car keys for her absent-minded husband.  But disconcerting things are happening.  She loses her train of thought in a speech she's given countless times before.  She can't figure out what something on her to-do list means.  She gets disoriented walking her familiar path from the university to her house.  She finds reasons for these lapses.  It's mere forgetfulness.  It's overwork.  It's stress.  It's menopause.  However, her doctor doesn't think so and sends her for assessment: suddenly she's confronted with a diagnosis of Alzheimer's. 

The disease takes hold more quickly in those who succumb to it before 65 and Still Alice is absolutely terrifying as it describes the swift and brutal deterioration of an extremely talented and intellectually gifted woman.  Alice is smart, and devises all sorts of aids to continuing her life.  She even devises a memory test meant to signal when the situation has deteriorated so badly she should take her own life with the pills she's been hoarding.  We see different members of her family and her university colleagues struggle to find the best response; they range from denial, impatience, solicitude, avoidance, compassion, and constructive assistance.  

The author of Still Alice is Lisa Genova, who holds a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Harvard.  Because publishers thought this book would only appeal to the Alzheimer's community, Genova self-published and self-marketed.  It's hard to believe publishers couldn't see that for many boomers, Alzheimer's is a fear greater than death, and this book would be greeted with great interest, as well as huge trepidation.  The popularity of the book spread through word of mouth and an agent and a publisher appeared.  In the end, the book was Top 10 on New York Times and Globe and Mail best-seller list.  It's a gripping read, and no wonder it found an audience.

Genova's next book, Left Neglected, is the story of another highly successful, multitasking Harvard Ph.D. (notice a pattern here?) who loses the left side of her brain in a traumatic traffic accident.  I remember Jill Bolte-Taylor's riveting talk at TED where she described what it felt like to have a stroke that damaged the left side of her brain and the euphoria she felt as her analytic left side quit working.

1 comment:

Lib Gibson said...

I'm watching a talk on Big Ideas by Michael Adams, the social values researcher, about the differences between boomers, pre-boomers and post-boomers. He points to the attitude of the post-boomers that they don't have a duty towards their parents. The first question from the audience was from someone who obviously was a boomer. Would these post-boomers be willing to look after parents when they got Alzheimer's? It was just another indication of how fear of this disease preys on the minds of the boomers.