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At the heart of the film Still Alice is Julianne Moore’s portrayal of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Told from the Linguistics Professor’s point of view, we see the world shrink and distort for her, as if she has boarded a tiny boat and is suddenly in the middle of the Atlantic. It is a terrifying story and an important one, not only because it explores the ravages of personhood that is Alzheimer’s, but also because it allows us to imagine the tremendous loss family members and friends bear in watching this wasting disease erode the loving, competent, insightful, and forgiving person they once knew. One thing I take issue with is the fictional story’s overworked irony of a linguistics professor losing her words; the true story of such a condition may be found in the film Iris, a biographical film acted with ravaging truth by Judi Dench, Kate Winslet, and Jim Broadbent about the life and intellectual disintegration of Iris Murdoch, celebrated Irish philosophical novelist. This disease is horrifying because it robs its sufferers of the competence developed over a lifetime – whether one stays home with children, rises up the corporate ladder, makes one’s mark as an academic, or sells cars. Alzheimer’s robs its sufferers of meaning: how to use toothpaste . . . how to follow directions . . . how to find the way home from a familiar location and, eventually, . . . how to find the very meaning of home.
My husband and I touched hands frequently as we watched this film together. We both wept for the imaginary Alice and for the fraying of family life the disease causes. At the end, we remained seated, our fingers touching, our eyes moist. It is a mature person’s film and a young person’s film; it has a heart and a soul that is deep and tender because it expands our understanding of what it is to care for someone who is losing the self to this condition we call Alzheimer’s as well as our understanding of the person who is losing the self.