Saturday, March 26, 2011

The problem with Alzheimer's narratives

This is the first of at least three forthcoming posts on Alzheimer's and narrative, which work toward a conference paper in London in early April at Brunel University for the New Cultures of Ageing Conference.


Those from whom one wants to hear word cannot--beyond some point--speak. They cannot describe themselves or the situation in which they exist, just beyond the veil we catch on when we ask those simple questions, like "What's your name?" "Who is the president?" "What day of the week is it?" "Do you want to eat?" Those who write Alzheimer's memoirs, therefore, are not victims, but survivors: children, spouses. Between the silence imposed by the illness and the very real problem of how to engage with an unengageable fact, Alzheimer's narratives (non-fiction, fiction, even poems) can't get at the disease. Most devolve into memoirs of living with the disease, rather than experiencing it; they are about the disease, not the person suffering the disease. If I am the person constantly talking about my relative with Alzheimer's, then she becomes nothing more than a cover for the illness. The illness, one might say, does all of the not-talking. Even more troubling, the fact of non-response inspires festivals of the first person, discursive accounts that put the spectator between the reader and what she reads about. As I (ah, the dreaded first person) read these memoirs, I want to swat the spectator away. It's like watching a great baseball game and being constantly interrupted by prattling announcers whose minds and mouths are elsewhere. But enough editorializing, for now.

In a Ph.D. examination defense recently, one of my colleagues asked the candidate what he thought of contemporary fiction's reliance on the first person. There's not much student fiction, on any level, he said, that isn't written from that solitary viewpoint. The test taker agreed, and responded that it was easier to circumscribe the world through a single view than through a more comprehensive (we, they, the omniscient guy) view. That it was a case of "write what you know" gone monotone. This got me to thinking about how memoirs suffer from this problem, too. Of course one assumes that a memoir will be told in the first person, but if the memoir is actually about someone else, the person with an illness that renders them mute, then how to jump-start a "we," when "we" is a concept known only to the writer and not to the subject of her writing? It all begins to feel like higher math, but math that describes terrible loss, the loss of one or more pronoun-selves. Some sort of null-set in words.

The New Yorker
of September 10, 2001, oh day before the day we're told the world changed, contained an essay by Jonathan Franzen called "My Father's Brain"; it's collected in his 2003 essay collection, How To Be Alone. This essay, which runs approximately 30 pages in the book, tells the story of Earl Franzen's last years, those during which he (and his wife) suffered through his Alzheimer's. Never a terribly communicative man, Earl Franzen became less and less talkative, and finally died in the hospital in the mid-1990s. The son who writes the story came and went, trying his best to help out his mother. In the style of creative non-fiction, Franzen writes into his own narrative that of Alois Alzheimer's discovery of the disease. He has done his research, drawing from David Shenk's The Forgetting and other sources. He also draws from family letters--letters to him from his mother, letters from his father, when he could still write. Like all Alzheimer's tales, the story causes its teller pain early, and ends late.

The most moving part of the essay is a transcription of the letter Earl Franzen wrote to a grandson in 1992, but left in a drawer, rather than send it. "I know that my writing will not be easy to read, but I have a problem with the nerves in my legs and tremors in my hands. In looking at what I have written, I expect you will have difficulty to understand, but with a little luck, I may keep up with you," he writes (35). The letter ends with a brief report on the weather and a P.S. thanking the boy for "gifts." How very hard to understand a letter that is not even sent. The not-sending adds to the reader's feeling in reading the letter the boy never received. There's also something powerful in the phrase "I know that my writing will not be easy to read," as one imagines how difficult it was to write such a simple sentence. As John Emil Vincent noted about Ashbery's "difficulty," it simply goes with the territory, whether that territory is queer or demented. There's more than one difficulty here, and they're both difficult to absorb.

So why is Jonathan Franzen's essay so difficult to read? It's not the prose, which flows easily, gathers narrative momentum and then stops when Earl Franzen's heart does. It's not that Franzen is overly sentimental, because he is not; he recognizes the difficulties in his parents' marriage and in his own actions toward them. But it's difficult to read because there's so little of the father in the essay (despite its title, "My Father's Brain") and so very much of the narrator. Over the course of the 30 pages in the book, Franzen uses the first person pronoun, I, 172 times. That's not counting the "me" and "my" that often accompanies the "I," as in "my father." Despite the several pages of facts, on which there are very few references to Jonathan Franzen, he is using the first person, on average, between five and six times per page.

Now some of these "I's" are inevitable in such a story. But what is most striking is that the I-count rises precipitously just as Franzen senior dies. The story of the father nearly disappears in the shadow of the son's first person. But let me begin from the problem of story and return to the first person issue later. In such a story, which follows a linear narrative, the narrator must set forth his stake in the story, and then lead us from incident to incident; he must make sense along the way, because stories make sense. (That Alzheimer's does not, at least not in the way we usually think of sense, is a big problem.) But Franzen thinks a lot about story; he tells his stories a lot. He tells stories about telling his stories. Of the February day when he received the report of his father's autopsy from his mother, along with a greeting card, two Mr. Goodbars, and a heart on a loop of thread. "But the fact that I've re-remembered that February morning countless times since then, I've told the story to my brothers, I've offered it as an Outrageous Mother Incident to friends of mine who enjoy that kind of thing, I've even, shameful to report, told people I hardly know at all" (9). One wonders if we readers, the ones he "hardly know[s] at all" still provoke shame, if he keeps telling the story about the story to mitigate that shame. Or if his recursiveness is more about addressing that shame than getting at the meaning of his father's dying and death.

The storyteller cannot control his story. That bothers him. As he writes a couple pages later, even before he tells us that his father took "a narrative interest in life" (12): "This was his disease. It was also, you could argue, his story. But you have to let me tell it" (11). This is not an invitation; this is an order, akin to Whitman's "what I assume you shall assume," if not so eloquently ordained. The reader must hear it from Jonathan Franzen. It must be mediated through this narrative that moves forward into a future that will end with the father's death. His father will not tell the story, except in that one letter. As if to reinforce this new order, Franzen continues: "Indeed, I'm somewhat appalled by how large I loom in my own memories, how peripheral my parents are" (11). He figures that this self-looming is due to his absence from his parents' lives, the fact that he only enters the scene every so often as "a U.N. peacekeeping force" (12). When the younger Franzen comes to help his mother deal with her own surgery and the decline of her husband, on a page that contains 14 first persons (the moments of crisis elicit the most I-statements), he notes: "In a similar way, I think I was inclined to interpolate across my father's silences and mental absences and to persist in seeing him as the same old wholly whole Earl Franzen. I still needed him to be an actor in my story of myself" (15).

Another of these moments of crisis occurred, for Jonathan Franzen, when he had to come to terms with the very concept of Alzheimer's disease. For a long time, he had refused to acknowledge his father's steady, but slow, decay, and had been suspicious of the "illness" (as are many of us when first confronted by mental illnesses, our own or others'). When he does realize that the something that is wrong is biological, he gets there in a flurry of "I's": "They point to the brain as meat. And, where I ought to recognize that, yes, the brain is meat, I seem instead to maintain a blind spot across which I then interpolate stories that emphasize the more soul-like aspects of the self" (19). The blind spot is productive, because it generates stories, and stories mean more than biology can offer. (I know that one well, myself.) That Franzen acknowledges that his "sense of private selfhood turns out to have been illusory" (20) is wise. But it does not have any effect on the form of his telling the story. He has arrived at a recognition that ought to recast story itself, but the story marches on, like Wily Coyote who's gone off the cliff, but still runs as per usual.

Wisdom occurs in bursts of first persons, then. "I found that watching my father lose all three [intelligence and sanity and self-consciousness] made me less afraid of losing them myself. I became a little less afraid in general. A bad door opened, and I found I was able to walk through it" (25). Or "I can't stop looking for meaning in the two years that followed his loss of his supposed 'self,' and I can't stop finding it" (30). But how can the notion of "supposed self" sustain a straightforward narrative? And what of Mr. Franzen, the elder? He is teacher, but who else might he be?

And then Earl Franzen dies. Over the course of the two pages of his dying, his son uses the first person 30 times, 11 on page 36, when he goes into the hospital to see his father, and 10 on page 37, when Earl Franzen passes on. His death is long: "And still he didn't die. . . . my mother and I sat in the dark. I don't like to remember how impatient I was for my father's breathing to stop, how ready to be free of him I was. I don't like to imagine what he was feeling as he lay there, what dim or vivid sensory or emotional forms his struggle took inside his head. But I also don't like to believe that there was nothing" (37). Even his father's death is announced by the son, as it happened, and as it happens again for us: "when I noticed that he was drawing his hands up toward his throat, I said, 'I think something is happening'" (37). That something is happening marks the ending. Death is what happens for the son, even as death is what begins the long non-happening for the father.

And so the story of the father's loss of self, first through illness and then in death, is met by constant assertions of the son's/author's self. There's an almost too-clear conjunction between loss and recompense, where that recompense is insisted upon, nearly shouted out, on every page. To acknowledge the author's own unraveling as he gazes in the mirror of his father's dying would be to acknowledge the lack of power of story in the way he tells it. So there's a double anxiety here. I am, and I tell stories. Damn it!

And if one were to answer the story's unraveling with an unraveling story?

Solution? Stay posted. There isn't one certain, but there are strategies to consider.


Tom Gammarino said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
susan said...

good point, Tom. I'll do a spot check of other essays. But the real problem, to my mind, is the way in which this essay is like other Alzheimer's essay, not simply like other Franzen ones. aloha, Susan

Declan said...

I found this post really illuminating, but would love to read more about the solutions and "strategies to consider" that you mention at the very end - are your subsequent two posts or the talk you gave at the New Cultures of Ageing Conference online anywhere?

Thank you,
Declan Gould

susan said...

Declan--thanks for asking. Yes, there are two more posts right near this one on the blog, and I made the whole thing into a talk that I gave here and there, if you'd like to see it. aloha, sms