Even in the No Exit tragedy that Alzheimer’s is, bits and pieces of that old self still come through. Julianne Moore’s heartbreakingly real performance couldn’t show this more clearly. And, even, as Still Alice poignantly reveals – sometimes something flowers into bloom that wasn’t free to live fully before. A buried part of Alice is found. What makes that possible?
Alzheimer’s doesn’t only rob its victims of their minds. It strips away psychological defenses. Words and intellect are Dr. Alice Howland’s life. She also uses them as barriers against feeling – for understandable reasons. Her mother and sister died suddenly and tragically when she was 18. There was only an alcoholic father left. Unlikely he could help her with her grief.
It’s not that Alice doesn’t love. She does, deeply. But, it’s hard for her to live in the moment. Let differences be. Not to have control. To allow spontaneous things to emerge, like feelings. Her daughter Lydia (]Kristen Stewart) can. Her life is living in the world of feeling. In her acting and her writing. She’s the side of Alice that Alice rejects. Their worlds collide in misunderstandings.
What Alice Needs & Also What She Fights
Yet, it’s Lydia who reaches her mom and gives Alice what she needs the most. It’s Lydia who asks her what it’s like to have Alzheimer’s: “What’s it like? I mean what does it actually feel like?” Lydia wants to know. She meets Alice where Alice is. She gives her permission to talk, to begin to grieve. It is what Alice needs. But, also what she fights.
Lydia has her own fight. Not feeling accepted by Alice. Now, she gives her mom the place for uniquely individual feelings that Alice can’t give her. As she actively seeks her mom out, Lydia breaks through her angry standoff: “No secrets, Mom.”
And, Lydia helps Alice talk from her experience at the Alzheimer’s conference. To not hide behind scientific facts and research and search for a cure. Lydia says: “Make it personal: I want to know how it feels. What it means to you.” The personal win out. It’s what Alice has to do to come to terms with what’s happening to her. No feelings kept secret.
What’s Lost & Found in Still Alice
This is the only way to navigate loss. To talk: to have someone willing to listen. “I’m learning the art of losing”, Alice says candidly to a rapt audience. She didn’t know how to lose her mom and sister. Now she has to face losing herself. This time there’s the help of her feelings and people to hear them. She is, maybe for the first time, unguardedly the real Alice.
At the end of Still Alice when Alzheimer’s has robbed her of her old self – the open, feeling Alice is there. What makes that possible? Lydia’s help: her openness. Her patience. When her intellect isn’t working for Alice anymore, Lydia gives her a chance to find a voice for the side of her she’d kept shut away.
Alice becomes a butterfly. Not because butterflies don’t live long enough. No –because, in mastering the art of losing, she lives the moments now. The poetic words that Lydia reads reach through the fog of Alzheimer’s: And the world was repaired … because nothing’s lost forever.
Even though Alice has lost her ability to put words together in a rational way, she knows what those words mean. She struggles to say it: Love. There is the tragedy and the ravages of Alzheimer’s. There is a loss of time. Yet, here is a small miracle. Lydia finds her mom.