Monday, December 5, 2011

Book Review: Still Alice by Lisa Genova

I read this book 11/2011. I think this book is one of the most interesting and clever novels I have read in some time. I loved this book and was completely heartbroken at the same time.

The story centers around Alice, a 50 year old Harvard professor of cognitive psychology, so her life is as an academic who focuses on how the mind processes language and its uses. The novel begins right at her 50th birthday, as she begins to slowly notice little hiccups in her memory and its function. It is nothing that people do not experience everyday, including me in my early thirties. These occurrences start to become a little more frequent than she likes since she has such a razor sharp memory and impressive intellectual prowess (we would expect nothing less from any professor but, especially one who has tenure at Harvard).

At first she believes these instances are related to menopause, since she fits neatly into the 48-52 year old age bracket, and because slight memory issues or forgetfulness are common side effects of going through menopause. So she visits her family physician who tells her as such and she goes on for a little while somewhat confident/hopeful that this is the cause of her memory hiccups. Then she has a few incidents that make her visit the physician again and cause her to request to see a neurologist. After a bunch of neurological tests she is familiar with (teaching), the result is that she has early onset Alzheimer's disease, which she initially keeps from her family and colleagues. Eventually she must bring her husband in to the doctor's office since she soon will not be a reliable judge as to how much she is deteriorating.

The element in the novel that stuck with me the most is her blackberry. It is one of the things that carries us through her painful memory loss and mental deterioration the most because it reoccurs throughout the remaining chapters. Early on in her loss of mental acuity she makes a list of a few questions which chime in via her device every morning at 8am with instructions telling herself that if she cannot answer these questions than she should open a file on her computer called "butterfly." The questions ask her to answer: 1.What month is it? 2.Where do you live? 3.Where is your office 4.When is Anna's birthday (one of her daughters) and 5.How many children do you have? At the beginning the answers are clear and detailed, but as the chapters progress we see them become much simpler as she forgets, has trouble reading and typing, and eventually cannot read or type anything at all because it is too difficult to process. In an incident that was devastating for me, she loses the blackberry in a way that destroys its functionality, so she no longer gets her daily reminder, and therefore, forgets her "butterfly" file exists and forgets her ultimate plan, which is eluded to but not stated outright, that she will kill herself when her "self" is gone. And since she no longer has that reminder she has lost her plan and herself.

I connected to this book personally since I am also a college instructor in a field that requires me to remember and instantly recall a plethora of facts (art history). If I were to suffer from the same degenerative mental disease my career would also be over. As professors we define ourselves, in large part, by our mental prowess and ability to communicate with our students and colleagues. This book helped me feel what it would be like since we read it from Alice's point of view and not an outsider or caregiver.

I also learned a bit about Alzheimer's from this book. I did not know that there were three genetic markers for this disease which can be tested for, that early onset is hereditary, nor did I even realize that one could suffer the effects so early on in life. I, probably like many people, thought it was a disease of the elderly, and that memory loss was just a part of getting older. I am glad I now know more but, am equally frightened that it can happen at the pinnacle of a career.

I would recommend this book to learn more about the human side of suffering from a disease. It is a powerful novel, albeit a scary and sad one, but well worth reading. Sometimes it is easier to confront these issues through a novel because it becomes more personal than just reading statistics or medical language that the average person cannot understand. But, we can understand Alice, the fierce intellectual who controls every aspect of her world eventually having to live satisfied with loving chocolate ice-cream and only referring to her children as "the mother" and "the actress" because she doesn't know who they are anymore.

And so it goes...
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