I often use my mom’s shelves as a library and picked up a book over the summer to read before Thanksgiving (the Janet Robbins library has longer borrowing periods than your neighborhood library). Her book club read Still Alice by Lisa Genova last year, a story of a Harvard psychology professor in her early 50s who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. I almost missed my return date, though, because I couldn’t bring myself to read it, knowing that it would be a heavy and emotional read.
I didn’t find the book especially well written, but I did find it to be the kind of book that gave me insight into a disease that I would never get reading an article about it. The story is told from Alice’s point of view and her frustrations become my own.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about identity–and how we define ourselves and how that changes over time–but mostly in the context of the identities that we can choose for ourselves. New ways of thinking we embrace, career moves, family life, cities we attach ourselves to. Of course, some of the new identities are thrust upon us from life experiences we didn’t plan or ask for, but over time learn to tuck into how we see ourselves and relate to the world around us.
The layer this book added to my thought life was when all the ways that Alice had defined herself began to fade–ever more intensely–as her disease progressed. She pondered the question herself in a “last lecture” sort of scene towards the end of the book:
“I often fear tomorrow. What if I wake up and don’t know who my husband it? What if I don’t know where I am or recognize myself in the mirrow? When will I no longer be me? Is the part of my brain that’s responsible for my unique ‘me-ness’ vulnerable to this disease? Or is my identity something that transcends neurons, proteins, and defective molecules of DNA? Is my soul and spirit immune to the ravages of Alzheimer’s? I believe it is.”
I guess that reading this book reaffirmed my belief that identity comes from something deeper than a profession or a pastime. I had a fleeting second of the fear of sounding trite writing that. But it is also beautifully simple, so.