"The Almost Moon," by Alice Sebold, is a bestseller for good reason. Sebold is a fantastic writer who brings to life a riveting story about extreme family dysfunction. Since the big Alzheimer's moment is in the first paragraph, and this is an Alzheimer's site, I'll quote from the first paragraph:
"When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily. Dementia, as it descends, has a way of revealing the core of the person affected by it...She had been beautiful when my father met her and still capable of love...but by the time she gazed up at me that day, none of this mattered."
This story, told from the perspective of Helen, the daughter of two mentally ill parents, reveals, in the first line of the book, that she killed her mother. The first chapter does talk about dementia, to some degree. Her mother was 88 and dementia was taking hold. However, in my opinion, little of what the mother did, in her aged, demented state, was worse than what she did during the years prior to Alzheimer's. The cruel remarks from her mother's mouth didn't start with dementia. And the statement that dementia "reveals the core of the person affected by it" likely, in some instances is true, but many of us have witnessed in our loved ones total personality changes with the decent of dementia.
As the story develops, the reader finds out that the mother had always made cruel remarks to the daughter. The beautiful mother who had modeled slips for photographers constantly criticized her daughter's weight. She made her daughter, as a young girl, stand up to an angry crowd of men who came to see the mother. That the young Helen was slapped by a grown man, for her mother's behavior, and the mother chose to ignore this, was just one more incident in the horribly messy life of the child. This happened long before the dementia.
That Helen's father shot himself and young Helen was left to clean up the blood - well I could go on but I don't want to ruin it all. The point is, Helen had an intense love/hate relationship with her mother her entire life. The fact that her mother had developed Alzheimer's as she aged is practically a non-issue. Did the Alzheimer's push Helen over the edge? Perhaps. In a way love, not hate motivated her. And dementia was just a tiny, additional irritant. A lifetime of twisted connections congealed in that single moment and made Helen's murder of her mother seem a natural, almost compassionate act.
Nothing could have been more painful for Helen's sick, agoraphobic (she couldn't even leave the house without being shrouded by blankets) mother than to have to go to a communal nursing home. She wanted to die at home. Helen knew her mother was dying and Helen was planning on calling their hospice - at least that's what she told herself.
When her mother soils herself, and Helen starts to clean her up, she washes with water and sponges and uses the towels to dry - and then smother - her mother. It just happens. This mature woman was once a child who dreamed of cutting her mother up and putting her mother's severed pieces in boxes. Yet, she hated seeing her mother suffer the indignities of old age. This bowel accident just floated Helen right over the top and she ended her mother's life. She never is really sorry she did it. The story goes on to tell the background of Helen's life growing up, her marriage, her children, her desperation to escape from her mother. Her need to care for her mother. The book traces the hours after the murder and how it all is resolved. It's a great read.
A couple of months back, I read and reviewed another bestseller titled "Water for Elephants," written by Sara Gruen. That book too, was an exceptionally well written page turner. The device used to give the story a frame was to have the protagonist be an elderly man in a nursing home, who was remembering his exciting past as a young man living life and meeting love while working in a sleazy circus. I loved the book. However, as I mentioned in that review, the story could have been framed in another way. It really wasn't about the old man in a nursing home. The author did have some knowledge and compassion about aging and an elder's feeling stuck and abandoned in a nursing home. But the main story line was an exciting circus tale.
Sebold, too, could have left out the Alzhiemer's disease. She shows knowledge of the disease and what it can do to the mind, but the rest of the book tells the tale of her life as she was raised by two mentally ill parents. There was plenty there without the mother having Alzheimer's.
Dysfunctional family? This family is the poster child for that phrase, long before Alzheimer's. It may, indeed, hit very close to home for those caregivers who are facing the puzzle of how to care for parents who never cared for them. In "The Almost Moon," we have the extreme version of this dilemma.
What is of interest to us here is the Alzheimer's connection. Aging, nursing homes and Alzheimer's is becoming so high profile that first-rate authors are working the device into their bestselling stories. This shows a movement in our culture. Aging, and some of the attending difficulties that accompany it, have been swept under the rug in past decades. The idea of setting a story in a nursing home, or of using dementia as a device to draw a reader into a story of family dysfunction, would not have interested many publishers a couple of decades ago. Suddenly, these issues are "sexy." They sell.
What, exactly, does that say about our society? I think there is some good in it. It says to me that society is now realizing that aging is a part of the lifecycle. That it won't just go away. Keeping Alzheimer's disease in the spotlight; showing nursing homes as something less than what they could be; these issues spotlighted in bestselling novels are signs that even popular culture is taking notice. Maybe that means more attention will be paid to finding solutions to the multiple problems we face as we care for our elders. Maybe that means that solutions will be found so that people like Helen and her mother won't face such a disturbing end. One can only hope.
Published On: November 15, 2007