It’s almost upon us—Oscar Night. So Dave and I went to see Still Alice, despite the fact that his mother’s name was Alice, who had Alzheimer’s disease. So we knew it was likely to be an emotional movie-going experience.
Well, that was an understatement. This film touched me deeply. On one hand, it reminded me of my sweet mother-in-law’s final years. And on the other hand, I have been feeling for the last few years that my memory capacity has shrunk considerably, so I related to the protagonist more than was comfortable.
The movie opens with Alice—a beautiful, accomplished, articulate linguistics professor—celebrating her 50th birthday with her family. Then Julianne Moore skillfully takes us on her character’s painful journey from healthy independent woman to someone who gets lost in her own house and can barely speak. Because Alice is intelligent and highly educated (proclaimed by her husband to be the smartest woman he ever met), the audience feels her loss even more dramatically. And of course the irony that a leading expert on linguistics has trouble remembering the correct word is not lost on her.
It starts realistically as she gives a lecture and hesitates while she tries in vain to conjure a particular word, which she later remembers (lexicon). Her loving—but not perfect—husband (played by Alec Baldwin) responds to her concern the way most people would—we all forget things now and then, particularly as we age. As it progresses, she fails to recognize her surroundings on Columbia campus, where she teaches.
So Alice secretly consults a neurologist. On her first visit, he gives her a simple test, which she almost aces. She successfully spells the word water backward and is able to tell him exactly where she is, but she forgets one of the three items she is told to remember. Her doctor orders an MRI.
I recognized that test because I recently took it when I consulted my doctor, concerned by my memory loss. And I almost aced it too. Like Alice, I quickly spelled a word backward and was able to say exactly where I was. And like Alice, when I was asked to repeat words a few minutes later, I got two out of three. My doctor didn’t see any reason to worry, but he ordered some blood tests to rule out a few possibilities.
Alice and I both received a clean bill of health on the follow-up diagnostic tests. At that point, my doctor said that my condition did not seem to warrant any further testing. Alice’s neurologist, however, ordered a PET scan, which confirmed his suspicion that she had early-onset Alzheimer’s.
This did not give me comfort.
Neither did my husband’s insistence that we all forget things. Did he not see the same movie I did? That’s exactly what Alec Baldwin said!
I provided examples that I found parallel to those in the film, such as the time I found my grocery list in the freezer. Dave did not agree that this was just like Alice discovering her lotion in the frig. He claims that a grocery list in the freezer makes perfect sense. (Perhaps I should be worried about him too…) I have also missed appointments and been unable to recall words, not every day, but it happens.
Watching a woman who realizes she’s slipping rapidly into dementia was frankly more terrifying for me than any horror film, especially when Julianne Moore gives such a stellar nuanced performance. Let’s hope the academy remembers her tomorrow night.