Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tangles: Visual Poetics of Alzheimer's

Tangles. Hair. Err. Air. Heir.

My Alzheimer's is mostly sound. When I sat among Alzheimer's residents, I listened more than looked. When I wrote notes, then later blog posts, my thoughts were generated from the sounds of words, or parts of words, I'd overheard in the Alzheimer's home. Because so much of my life with my mother near the end was on the telephone, she became her voice, and then her lack of one, breath and then none.

Sarah Leavitt, in Tangles: A story about Alzheimer's, my mother and me, a graphic memoir, and Jennifer Ruth Montgomery, in the video, The Agonal Phase,* offer us images of and for their mothers' diseases. Leavitt's title foregrounds the curly hair that runs in her family, passing down from mothers to daughters. Montgomery's video opens with a long still image of tangled hairl many more images of hair follow, including one of hair being slipped into an envelope whose return address is that of a hospice. As Leavitt writes in the chapter aptly called "Hair": "Most people in my family have curly hair. It was one of the things that made us really stand out in the small towns we lived in when I was growing up." That box is unillustrated. The next one frames a somewhat absurd image; here, we see Leavitt's mother leaning over an ironing board, hair splayed out, an iron in her left hand, moving over her hair. "Mom had tried to straighten her hair for a while in the 60s. She ironed it," we read. The rest of this page is all about hair--mother's, mother's friend's, Leavitt's, the monster in her dreams who wants her hair brushed, the balls of her mother's hair she keeps, and then her own, which she begins collecting. "I kept the boxes on shelves above the bed and it helped me sleep at night, just knowing they were there." (Click to enlarge the image.) That the boxes of hair have something to do with the boxes of illustrations and the unspooling narrative seems clear. Both are family stories, one written in DNA's continuous present and the other in historical time.

But if you look closely at the second box on the fourth line of this page, the one that reads, "I never used a comb or brush on Mom's hair, just my fingers," and pause on the images of these tangles, you'll notice shapes that appear as if seen under a microscope. Lacking the words, the context, you would not know these are tangles of hair. You might, if you've read enough about Alzheimer's, think they formed another kind of tangle, like these:

These are tangles in the brain, tangles that provide visual evidence of the disease during an autopsy, mysterious tangles that cannot (yet) be uncombed, ironed out, straightened into merely remembered clarities of thought. Alzheimer's--especially early-onset, like that suffered by Leavitt's mother--runs in biological families. Like curly hair. An inheritance. At one point, the daughter, Sarah, spends a lot of time writing and drawing with her non-dominant hand, trying to "strengthen her brain." That is all we need to know of her worry.

Leavitt tells us from the start that she obsessively collected things--took notes, made drawings, hoarded her own tangles--also saved scraps of her mother's handwriting. The scrawled notes from mother to daughter are tangled. Early on, mother's note to daughter about garlic seeds she's sending on moves from left to right. The spacing is cramped, but the note is readable. Twenty pages later, another note is both less and more so; lines do not move from left to right but one moves from the center out and back: "family is The whole / eags to see you." That the family is not whole; that mother has a hole in her--and yet that the family is whole, coming together around her, is something Leavitt does not need to write. Her mother's unconscious poem speaks it to us. In its falling apart, language testifies to its own strength. Meaning accrues around loss, for better and for worse. (This would have been my mother's 94th birthday, so I know that I know this.)

The handwritten tangles visually echo others that Leavitt writes down in more orthodox, readable handwriting. Such verbal "typos" include her mother's declaration, "Oh broccoli, who are simple!" and her answer to the question "did you eat the rye cracker," of "No, it's eejier and squiggy to them." Of the first, Leavitt's father says "Well, it is grammatically correct," suggesting that grammar possesses a logic that lasts beyond the mind's ability to know it. The second is left without comment, except by Mom, who adds: "Something's gonna happen to it. / Nice or not nice, nicely or lovely." As I've suggested before, Gertrude Stein had nothing on lines like these.

If Stein postulated that there is no repetition, only insistence, Alzheimer's argues otherwise. Jennifer Montgomery gets at the dullness of sheer repetition in her opening to The Agonal Phase. There is the sound of something squeaking, something happening over and over again, but we don't know what it is, except that it sounds like breathing perhaps, mechanical breathing. It's like the opening to a Twin Peaks episode, when you hear balls bouncing, but have no idea where they are or why they're bouncing. The delightful absurdity of a group of cadets bouncing balls at the lodge, in David Lynch's video, gives way to Montgomery's image of her father--seen mostly from the back, or in parts of his face only--bouncing on a small trampoline in his simple room. Bed with red cover, side table, telephone. A tea cup, a white cloth.

Everything is still except father. Father bounces up and down, up and down, up and down. The voice-over is quiet, a bit monotonous. He rehearses his wife's symptoms, which are short narratives, vignettes. These are stories of how time has gotten confused, mostly. Oddly, sadly, set to a rhythm so regular it's dull, like a poetic meter without variation. There's a tension between the dullness, the unchangingness of his bouncing, and the soft voice detailing mistake after mistake (not mistake but symptom).

Whatever order is created through this bouncing is artificial; the content of the image may be simple, but the emotions evoked by the mother's chaotic attempts to live within time are tangles. So, in the second section of her film, beautifully titled "The Good Enough Movie" (after Winnicott's "good enough mother"), Montgomery shows us herself under hypnosis. Again, very little "happens" on-screen. We see a woman sitting back in a chair, following the voiced over directions of a hypnotist (like a mellowed out version of her father's voice), raising her left hand, opening and closing it. The hypnotist proposes that there are two movie screens. On one she will see narrative, psychological time. This screen will confuse her. On the other screen, she will see things as they happen in clock time. This screen is not confusing to watch. The main point of the hypnosis is to put the contents of the first screen (memory) in storage, and/or to transpose them into the second movie, which follows time clearly. This is at once a therapy for the film-maker and a fantasy of how Alzheimer's might be cured. It resembles Leavitt's dream that her mother never had Alzheimer's, but had been hired to participate in a study and pretend she had Alzheimer's.

If the Alzheimer's sufferer cannot rediscover clock-time, then the film-maker can. This is perhaps why her film takes place inside time, why the images are so still, so repetitive, so predictable, why the voices try so hard to convey calm. And why the film runs at such a slow pace, even slower than baseball, because much less action happens. Much in the middle of the film occurs in silence, with only the father's voice-over (for the most part). Sound is only suggested: musical scores fill a section of the house, and poems are open to read, like Charles Causley's "The Swan."

They leave very little out, not the smell of shit, in the case of Leavitt, or talk of sexuality by Montgomery's father. They try to set time back on its axis by drawing it out, by making narratives, however short, of episodes in their mothers' lives. But what strikes me as most valuable about their visual poetics of Alzheimer's is that it puts our eyes on their mothers. Even when Jennifer Montgomery shows herself crying, she's framed this image of reflection within a nest of images of her mother, a manatee, other snapshots. For the daughter, grief is less a lack of control than a chance to observe, to "ruminate." One section of the film that struck me for reasons not having to do with my mother's illness but with my own, concerned the effects of depression upon memory. According to recent studies, Montgomery tells us, depression opens us up to seeing things, remembering them better than we do when we are not sad. It offers us a heightened power of analysis. (Sometimes, I would add.)
The film ends in sound. A woman sings in a park. She plays an accordian, pulling it back and forth. The accordion gives life back to time, to music, to the brightness of a summer day. After a few striking images of Judaism--Hebrew letters on a synagogue, among them--it sounds like a secular Kaddish. Leavitt writes more directly of her vow to say Kaddish for her mother every day for 11 months. She notes that "The words of the Kaddish and the feeling of the cloth against my skin and the solidity of the floor against my forehead comforted me every night." She ends by telling us a dream that her mother had planted seeds on her daughter's shoulders, that they bloomed. Another space of brightness, even though we know by now that it is only episode, a clip to take its place in a longer "strip" of time. I'm reminded that the day after my mother died, I walked across a wide suburban street to a mall and bought Ginsberg's Collected Poems for "Kaddish" alone. Its weight was a comfort, though I later realized the poem can be found on-line.
"Toward the Key in the window--and the great Key lays its head of light / on top of Manhattan, and over the floor, and lays down on the / sidewalk"

Sarah Leavitt's mother loved to dance. Tango leads to tangle by way of sound and sight. The vision of her mother trying to get out of the car after her body had stiffened, her mind forgetting how to move that body, takes us from the free movements of dance to the physical knots of late Alzheimer's. If we take confusion away, transpose the film of our mother's decline and death into clock-time, detach ourselves from the tangles of sentiment, horror, sadness, gnashing of teeth and hair, then we are, if not cured, salvaged for the next turn, which may or may not be ours.

*A non-figurative rendition of "the agonal phase," by Sherwin Nuland, can be found here.

In honor of my mother, on her birthday, October 25, let me link to an elegy for her. I've since revised and lineated it, but the original reflects the crazy force of memory in the aftermath of her death.


Barb C. said...

This review is so smart and also so very touching. The tangles, the narrative strip of Alzheimer's is a difficult and wrenching thing. I'm in the depths of entanglement with my father. I'm going to seek out these creative works so I have more company on this journey. I am sure I will learn some things as well. Thanks for your blog.

Susan M. Schultz said...

Thank you for reading it, Barb. Please accept my best wishes on this journey. (At some points, only cliches will do, really.) aloha, Susan

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