Alzheimer’s disease runs in my family – so much so that I am about 99% sure that I will someday suffer from it. So, being the sadomasochist that I am, I decided to read Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, a novel that chronicles the horrors of early onset Alzheimer’s. Terrifying and devastating, Genova’s book hit home for me on many levels, while bringing to light the terrible nature of this disease.
Dr. Alice Howard is a brilliant Harvard professor specializing in cognitive psychology and linguistics. At the age of 50, Alice seems to have it all, although she forgets things now and then. She assumes that her memory lapses are related to the onset of menopause. However, when the incidents begin to increase in frequency and severity, Alice begins to suspect a more ominous cause. She’s right, and is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. Her world quickly unravels in both expected and unexpected ways, and Alice is forced to confront how and if she will continue to live this way.
This book made me cry. Multiple times. As in big, ugly sobs. Genova chronicles the various stages of this disease, from forgetting where her purse is to forgetting her youngest daughter.
One particularly unsettling aspect of Alzheimer’s that Genova hits on is the shame associated with this disease, something that I have consistently noticed in my personal experiences. For instance, as the novel explains, cancer can be fought. It’s possible to overcome cancer. People are not embarrassed by cancer, or kept hidden from view if they have it. Alzheimer’s is often treated like a dirty little secret. There is a stigma associated with it, which is heartbreaking to the person afflicted and that person’s support system.
Alzheimer’s robs Alice of everything that she is. She is left as a shell, unaware that the people taking care of her are her own children. Depressing, gut-wrenching, and accurate, this is one of the most terribly sad books that I have ever read. It is a good book, but I wish I had not read it. The title is misleading, as she is not “still Alice” by the end of the book. She loses herself entirely, and her family loses her as well.