- I read this book after seeing the film. Having therefore invested quite a lot of time on the topic, I’d better invest a bit more writing a file note before – like Alice herself – I forget all about it.
- The book is well written and the topic interesting. There are some Discussion Questions at the end, together with an interview with Lisa Genova, which are helpful for reflection.
- My interest in the book is from the angle of my research – that of Personal Identity. No doubt the book is trying to say that Alice – while increasingly demented – is “still Alice” because there’s enough psychological continuity1 for her first-person perspective2 (Click here for Note) – even if attenuated – to be retained.
- Obviously, Alice remains the same human animal3 – so (as the animalists4, including me, would say) she is – however far the metal deterioration goes – “still Alice”. Whether Genova would accept this is unclear, as the book ends “before the end”, whatever that might be.
- There are lots of interesting issues raised by the book to do with plot, characterisation, social import and the like that time forbids that I should comment on.
- One issue was taking the experience personally. After all, I’m nearly 62 and can only expect cognitive decline. One worrying aspect was how highly intelligent people have coping strategies that disguise the symptoms (at least to third parties) so the disease ultimately appears to arise and progress very rapidly when In fact it’s been on-going for years. A passage in the book has a psychologist saying that while an ordinary person might have ten cognitive pathways supporting a particular function, a highly intelligent person might have 50 – so complete decay takes longer, though the end result is the same. It is difficult not to take this to heart5.
- The book is cleverly – and convincingly – written from Alice’s perspective. But I thought that it implied that the central core of Alice remained, while various modules – in particular memory and recognition – started to malfunction. I’m sure this is correct for the early stages – and even later on – like where she’s informed that her mother and sister are dead (their death was around 30 years ago). She is still Alice, and reacts to this “news” as anyone would. But the fact that this is news – and that the “checks and balances” have gone – may ultimately mean that the most central aspects of Alice also go, so that she’s no longer (psychologically) Alice – or indeed “anyone” – even to herself. Ultimately she will lose the qualities of personhood altogether (one imagines - Click here for Note).
- The question of suicide differs somewhat between the film and the book. In the film, Alice is caught in the act by the home help and drops the tablets in surprise. In the book, her husband asks her what she’s doing – she’s probably forgotten what she’s looking for – and gives her her normal pills, and in the process she forgets all about it – or, maybe, thinks she’s done what she was supposed to do in taking the pills; it’s unclear but “She lay down on the bed next to the former contents of the drawer and closed her eyes, feeling sad and proud, powerful and relieved as she waited. ” But it’s unclear whether she’s waiting for death, or for her husband to return from a brief errand. Maybe it’s supposed to be unclear. Anyway, a message implicit in the film and explicit in the book is that the suicide instructions need take into account the short term memory problems of the person whose time it is to follow them. Lisa Genova says she worried about including the suicide self-pact, and attempt. What decided her to cover the issue was that everyone she knew under the age of 65 diagnosed with Alzheimer’s had considered suicide.
- When asked about her choice of character – a 50-year-old Harvard psychology professor – Lisa Genova says lots of sensible things: to see the early stages of the disease, you need someone who’s expected to “deliver” cognitively, and who would notice and act on early symptoms rather than take them as a natural concomitant of old age. But we all know she’s writing about someone who could be her future self (she was 37 when the book was published in 2007).
- And to perceive symptoms in oneself that may not be there.
- Autobiographically, I do think my short term memory is nowhere near what it was, but I do remember that I intended to do things that I forgot at the time, which is taken to be a good sign. Also, my medium and long-term memory is fine – exceptional, even.
- But I am adopting “coping strategies” for short-term forgetfulness. That said, the forgetfulness is all “absent-minded professor” stuff – routine things forgotten while I’m thinking of something more interesting.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)