Still Alice: Alzheimer’s, Identity and Butterflies

I haven’t seen the film – I know it was nominated for, or may even have won, some awards – but I saw the book when I was shopping on day and bought it. I’ve just got round to reading it (it’s an easy read, I did it in less than 24 hours). It is an incredibly sad book.

This year I have been thinking more and more about living authentically – thanks in part to meeting @ChristyCapper at the SST conference in Nottingham, who is doing a PhD in Theology on authenticity. Also, in reading about the school I am about to start teaching in, I noticed they had a whole bit in the prospectus about teaching the students to live authentic online lives – I think this is something a lot of schools neglect, and many adults don’t understand. Our identities are no longer constructed solely in the ‘real’ or physical world, but also in the virtual world, and there is an increasing overlap between the two thanks to the proliferation of social media. In other words, don’t be someone online that you’re not in the ‘real’ world.

So, I haven’t said much about Still Alice yet, but the whole book kept making me think about the ideas of identity and authenticity. Someone who has a degenerative neural condition which causes them to lose their memories will undoubtedly begin to question where their identity lies. Alice asks at some point in the book if her identity as Alice is bound up with her memories. I think the answer has to be yes – our memories are both formative and binding. If we can no longer remember what we thought about something, part of our identity is lost to us. So, does our identity transcend our memories? I doubt it. Our identities are built up by the links made in our brains by those memories.

Still Alice shows that people with illnesses like Alzheimer’s can still lead fulfilling lives – at least for some time, before the condition degenerates to the point of helplessness. It reminds us that these people are still people, and even if their identities change, even if they decide they want a cup of coffee instead of tea, though they hate coffee and always drink tea, there is a continuity with the person they were. It is a reminder that our identities don’t stay still, whether we are ill or not – we are constantly changing, influenced by our personal, social and cultural circumstances.

A young Alice was sad when her mother told her butterflies only live for a few days, but was comforted that although their lives are short, they are beautiful. It certainly seems like Alice lived a full life, and certainly a short one – being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at fifty – but did she live a beautiful one? She seems to have had good family relationships – though her illness brings her closer to the one daughter she doesn’t really understand – and she has a successful career as a Harvard professor. But she has put off all of the things she wanted to do with her husband, thinking they will have lots of time to do them when they are older and retired.

The lesson from the butterfly – life’s too short, but enjoy it and live it to the full while you can. In this way, your life may be short, but it will be beautiful. Don’t waste a minute (well ok, maybe one, but not two)!

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