As our national population ages and we all start thinking about our elders and their mortality, we might also start thinking about unpleasant illnesses and decisions. But in Still Alice, the titular protagonist is an otherwise healthy, fifty-year-old Harvard professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Alice struggles both to understand her terminal illness and to maintain her crumbling brain. As she slides into dementia long before one would expect in her life, we see how frightening it can be to claw back to sanity from the inevitable chasm of mindlessness.
I picked up this book because I thought, “Wow . . . Someone actually wrote about how it feels to lose your mind.” My grandfather had had Alzheimer’s, and I often wondered how he felt about it when he was alive. I wish I had asked, because it seems like this books lays it all out. It’s terrifying to see how Alice can be perfectly rational one minute and raving the next about something as mundane as answering a phone, or why the front door is located in the middle of the living room. This story made me cringe; it made me sob with recognition; and I came away wanting to learn more about the disease and able to empathize with those who are living with Alzheimer’s.
The book has already been adapted into a powerful play. But for as much help and awareness that visualizations like movies and theater can give, there’s nothing like really feeling this story through the carefully documented lists Alice creates to confirm her own sanity. The whole book is unsettling, and it’s a bit unpleasant sometimes, but there are a few scenes that are incredibly tender and sweet.
I always recommend this book to anyone who asks me for a book that makes me sad. Now, I don’t react to books the same way I react to other media. Books don’t scare me or make me cry, and I can count on one hand the number of books that have done both. This is at the top of my list.
“My grandfather had Alzheimer’s, and I was afraid of him because of it. I’m embarrassed and a little ashamed to admit that. When I read this, I started to understand how scared and frustrated someone with Alzheimer’s can feel. I believe this understanding is critical as we learn how to care, how to treat, and how to cure this insidious disease in modern times.” —Kevin Myers (Read Kevin’s review of Still Alice here.)