Still Alice by Lisa Genova: A Letter To Science

January 25, 2013 Contemporary Fiction, Personal, Psychological, Tear Jerkers 39

Dear Science,

I just finished reading Still Alice by Lisa Genova. Are you familiar with the work? No? You are Science, after all, I can’t expect you to keep up with literature. I’ll give you a brief synopsis:

Alice Howland is a respected professor of linguistics and cognition at Harvard. When she begins to forget things, she believes she’s going through menopause or stressed. After a couple of harrowing experiences, Alice goes to visit her doctor. Her diagnosis is something she’d never have expected. At the age of 50, Alice is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

still alice

As you are well aware, Science, Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease that typically affects the elderly. Alice is a sprightly fifty years old. Fifty isn’t even retirement age! Well, it isn’t retirement age unless you’re really really lucky… Or independently wealthy. You can relate, can’t you Science? What with all the grants you have to beg for? Seriously, how is a person supposed to deal with that kind of diagnosis? How does a spouse react to that news? How can children cope with their parents not recognizing them? It’s unfathomable to me, but so is calculus… Perhaps you’ll understand better.

I think Genova did a beautiful job portraying the emotions Alice feels as things begin to slip away from her memory. I love the way the family’s reactions are written as well. The people felt so REAL. The whole narrative was very genuine and thought provoking. And, well, let’s face it, a bit of a tear jerker. (Yes, Science. I think this would squeeze even YOUR muscular ventricles.)

Tissues aren't a bad idea if you plan to read this...

Unfortunately, Alice’s Alzheimer’s doesn’t just steal her memory and break her family’s hearts. It has a genetic component. Each of Alice’s children have a 50/50 chance of inheriting the early onset Alzheimer’s. This revelation just opens up ANOTHER whole can of ethical worms. The advances in genetic testing are miraculous, but are there any advantages to knowing that you’re destined to succumb to a virtually untreatable illness? I know I shouldn’t be asking rhetorical questions of you, Science, but since I don’t expect an answer, I can’t see the harm.

Now that I’m feeling all the feels and pondering the ethics of genetic testing, I’m going to go ahead and hit below the belt with an extra dosage of sad face. Dementia sucks the big one no matter how old you are when it hits. I don’t want to get all sob story on you, but my Grandma had dementia. I didn’t witness much of my Grandma’s decline first hand, but I DID make sure that she got a crap ton of greeting cards. (You’re WELCOME, postal service!) It would be a big fat lie to tell you that I knew the pain of having her not recognize me or that I had to calm her panic in the middle of the night when she didn’t know where she was. I really didn’t know how bad things had gotten until she was gone, and “dementia” was always the word being tossed about because “Alzheimer’s” was too frightening. Reading this book was a revelation to me- I felt like I finally understood what she must have gone through… THAT is really what turned on the water works.


Psst. Science, if you’re not too busy, could you explain to Jim that I will not, in fact, shrink to Grandma size in my old age? I honestly don’t think she was ever very tall to begin with…

Here’s my plea to you, Science. There are other Grandmas out there. Let’s get to fixing this crappy disease now, okay? I know, Science. You’re very busy. Hypotheses don’t prove themselves, and there are lots and lots of diseases that need curing. I’m sure you’ll get around to revealing your secrets in your own good time. Until then, I, and the rest of the world, will be waiting. Impatiently.



39 Responses to “Still Alice by Lisa Genova: A Letter To Science”

  1. A.M.B.

    This is one of the subjects I don’t think I can read about “for fun.” It’s too heartbreaking. I hope science answers your plea soon.

    • Words for Worms

      I can’t blame you on that front. It was very well written, but. to quote the music of my youth, it will “put your tender soul in a blender, watch it spin around to a beautiful oblivion.” My penchant for 90s alternapop makes itself known in the least appropriate contexts…

      • A.M.B.

        Ha! That’s the music of my youth, too. I remember when “Inside Out” played on the radio all the time. It played on my way to the SAT and on my way home.

  2. Rhian

    I loved this book, but yes it is quite sad. I thought making the protagonist an expert in linguistics and cognition, and therefore aware (to some extent) of what was happening to her was especially poignant. It reminded me of Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes in the way the reader observes changes in the subject that they themselves are not aware of. I think this book would strike too close to home if you have a loved one suffering with Alzheimer’s, but I felt her insights gave me a much better understanding of this disease.

    • Words for Worms

      YES!!!!!!!!! I’m so glad you mentioned the Flowers for Algernon connection because I kept thinking the same thing! I love when we’re on the same wavelength!

  3. Ashley F

    My book club is reading this in April and although I hear it’s great, I’m kind of afraid to read it. My grandfather had Alzheimer’s and I can say I did see first hand what it’s like to have someone not recognize you. Some days it was like he was meeting a nice new young lady, other days he was paranoid and afraid because I can imagine it’s incredibly disorienting to have the constant feeling like something is wrong. And what was almost worse was the days where he WOULD recognize me because I knew that they were so few and far between.

      • Ashley F

        It will be interesting to say the least. I think if it was just me personally reading it I’d probably pass but I’m going to try because it’s book club. If I can’t do it, I can’t do it. Depends on how hard it hits.

  4. Daddio

    Thank you Katie! Your blog entry today brought tears to my eyes. It was indeed difficult to watch Mom deteriorate but through it all she always commented on your cards.

  5. Mel

    Great book, definitely brought out the ugly tears in me.
    Also read her book Left Neglected which was astounding as had never heard of that subject matter before.
    As wonderful as the brain is it is definitely a case of having all your eggs in one basket kind of conundrum. Not the greatest idea, whoever made us!
    All in all a great read as is all three of her books.

    • Words for Worms

      My book club read Left Neglected and I thought it was great. I mean, there were times it felt a little preachy about working moms… Then again, the heroine WAS working 80 hours a week, not 40. Fascinating disorder though, the left neglect! I haven’t read her third book, but I’m sure I will at some point.

  6. Sami

    I read this book about a year ago and it has stayed with me. I think this is a scary topic for anyone but this book is very well written and does a great job of explaining it from both the victim and the family’s perspective. I for one wouldn’t want to know if it was going to happen to me or my husband. My husband’s grandfather had it and I wonder sometimes if it will be passed down to him. I just want to live to the fullest and whatever happens happens!

    • Words for Worms

      If I knew there was a genetic link that could have been passed on to me, I’m not sure if I could keep myself from being tested. That said, I’m VERY glad that my grandparents never got genetic testing (my Grandpa had a touch of dementia as well, but he passed away from another cause before it could get bad.) Ignorance is bliss, as they say.

  7. Darlene

    thanks for posting this. I had never heard of the book. But my Paw Paw did suffer from the disease and I often wonder if I ever will. Maybe one day I will read this one. But Flowers for Algernon is on my list for sure. Was curious about it before, but after your post today and the episode of Person Of Interest that I saw last night featuring the book several times, I’ll be getting to that one sooner than later.

  8. Darlene

    Thanks for posting this. I had never heard of the book. But my Paw Paw did suffer from the disease and I often wonder if I ever will. Maybe one day I will read this one. But Flowers for Algernon is on my list for sure. I was curious about it before, but after your post today and the episode of Person Of Interest that I saw last night featuring the book several times, I’ll be getting to that one sooner than later.

  9. Rachel

    This was a very powerful book, wasn’t it? I thought about recommending it to my friend, whose grandmother is currently suffering from Alzheimer’s, but I thought it might be too depressing. 🙁 I think it’s the sort of book that’s better read after a little bit of emotional separation (as I’ve already had with my own grandmother). But, still…Amazing book!

    Have you tried out “Left Neglected,” by Genova? That one was pretty marvelous too. Not QUITE the same as “Still Alice,” but wonderful all the same.

    • Words for Worms

      I really liked Left Neglected too- fascinating disorder. I think a little emotional distance might be good for your friend- it might just be too raw to read while she’s going through it… Then again, it might be helpful to her, you know? I mean, there are support groups… Why not support books?

  10. Sarah Says Read

    Oh, this book sounds like a ball of sad. I don’t know if I could face it, especially knowing people who suffered through this with their own grandparents. I’m extrememly lucky that I never had to face it with my own grandma.

    I think I heard of some research with stem cells being used to try to fight Alzheimers or something… it might not have been stem cells, but that’s what came to mind. I really do hope they can make advances there soon.

  11. Leah

    Dear Science,

    I second Katie’s plea to make Alzheimer’s go away. My grandmother also had dementia. I didn’t personally witness her confusion and inability to perform basic self-care tasks because I was very young (she died when I was 10) and living halfway across the country, but I’m worried for my own mother.



    P.S. I’m kind of afraid to read this book, now.

  12. Care

    Still Alice is a fabulous book and a terrific one for a book club or just to have someone to discuss it with.

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