Hazel McHaffie

neuroscience

Neuroscientist or novelist

You’ve probably heard of Lisa Genova. She’s a neuroscientist by background but now also a fantastic novelist.

Her debut novel, Still Alice a fascinating insight into the mind of a young professor with Alzheimer’s – became a sensation and was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 2014. I gave it a four star rating when I reviewed it on my blog and when I chose it for discussion at a Readers’ Day. A brilliant and perceptive book.

Less well known is Genova’s second book, Left Neglected, which I also reviewed on this blog some time ago while I was ill. I loved this one too and it resonated with my own experiences of identity and disability. It’s insightful and lyrical and thought-provoking.

Genova novelsSo I just had to buy her other novels: Love Anthony and Inside the O’Briens. I’ve now read both of them but come to different conclusions about them. This week I want to talk about Love Anthony.

It tells the story of two women: Olivia and Beth. Both have disintegrating family lives; both are left without husbands; both adopt new careers.

Olivia Donatelli’s dreams are shattered when her beautiful little boy Anthony fails to develop normally, fails to speak, fails to engage with her emotionally. Aged 3 he is diagnosed with autism. Aged 8 he is dead. The strain and toll wreck her marriage and deplete all her reserves and resources. She buries herself in remote Nantucket Island until, through her photography, she finds new direction and new answers.

Beth Ellis is the mother of three girls who has just discovered her husband’s infidelity. Struggling to find a new identity she turns to creative writing and begins to write a first person story about a boy with autism. Sitting in the same seat in the same library she feels she is somehow channelling a haunting voice.

Love AnthonyOh dear. I’m afraid this book didn’t live up to my expectations. Neither the writing nor the plot nor the characters are a patch on Still Alice. It doesn’t do for autism what Alice did for Alzheimer’s. And I really didn’t like or believe in the story Beth wrote – the narrative voice became tedious and improbable. So I was startled to read Genova’s own declaration: ‘With Still Alice and Left Neglected, I was a neuroscientist writing a novel. With Love Anthony, I became a novelist.’ Hmmm, is there a cautionary tale there for me?

Tune in next week for much better news about the other one, Inside the O’Briens.

 

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Left Neglected

Isn’t it weird how things you read so often resonate with real life? They seem to jump off the pages. Some of it’s serendipity, some of it presumably just because we’re preoccupied at some level with a particular facet of life, making us super-sensitive to any mention of it anywhere it crops up.

That’s how it was with Lisa Genova‘s Left Neglected for me. (Clever title, by the way.) After a set back with my own ongoing health problems this past week, my upbeat facade slipped a bit; despondency crept round the edges of my guard. Sigh. Would I ever get back to full capacity and pick up the strands of my previous working life?

OK, distraction required urgently. Tidy desk … light a scented candle … reach for the next book on my tbr pile.

Left NeglectedAnd there it was: Left Neglected.

The protagonist Sarah, a young mum of three, brain damaged in a car accident, is struggling with a crisis of confidence. Will she ever get back into her high powered, multi-tasking, crowded, demanding life again? And boy, this woman has far, far bigger mountains to climb than I; much, much further to fall. Already my own task assumes less daunting dimensions.

But so much of what Sarah experiences resonates with me. There’s …

the everyday, no-big-deal but assured voice’ she and I reserve for visitors …

the resentment we feel towards those who would protect us from work-related tasks lest they stress us out: ‘Focus on you, don’t worry about work’ …

awareness of our own powerlessness: ‘The therapy might work and it might not. I can work as hard as I’ve always worked at everything I’ve ever done, and it might not be any more effective that just lying here and praying’.

Then there’s the lurking sense of day-to-day failure: ‘This is not the confident image of health and competency I was hoping to project’ …

not to mention the unspoken dread for the future: ‘What if I don’t recover 100 percent?’ …

in spite of the oft-repeated rallying cry: ‘I’m a fighter, I can do this.’

Lisa Genova is a neuroscientist by background which probably accounts for her choice of topics and the authenticity and insightful awareness of her writing. I loved her first book about dementia, Still Alice (now a major film). This time she has totally captured the real feelings of someone facing the ongoing issues of serious debilitating illness. The bonus is that her writing is also a delight to my soul. Listen to the way she introduces Sarah’s little girl Lucy who’s 5:

‘Lucy comes out of her bedroom dressed like a lunatic.

“How do you like my fashion, Mom?”

She’s wearing a pink and white polka-dot vest layered over an orange long-sleeve shirt, velvet leopard print leggings under a sheer pink ballerina tutu, Ugg boots, and six clips secured randomly in her hair, all different colors.

“You look fabulous, honey.”‘

Or the baby, Linus’ habit of crying relentlessly till a parent goes to him:

‘Plan aborted. Baby wins. Score: Harvard MBA-trained parents, both highly skilled in negotiation and leadership: 0. Nine-month-old child with no formal education or experience on the planet: too many times for my weary brain to count.’

If you’d told me Genova would take over 75 pages to even get to the accident I’d have gulped. Will there be enough hooks to keep me engrossed? No danger. She builds up a powerful picture of a beleaguered super-mom in her thirties juggling many competing demands. A nagging list is playing in Sarah’s head as she drives:

‘You need to call Harvard before noon, you need to start year-end performance reviews, you need to finalize the B-school training program for science associates, you need to call the landscaper; you need to email the London office, you need to return the overdue library books, you need to return the pants that don’t fit Charlie to the Gap, you need to pick up formula for Linus, you need to pick up the dry cleaning, you need to pick up the dinner; you need to make a dentist appointment for Lucy about her tooth, you need to make a dermatological appointment for you about that mole, you need to go to the bank, you need to pay the bills, don’t forget to call Harvard before noon, email the London office …’

By the time we get to page 75 we’re not surprised that she’s searching for her phone while she drives from A to B and momentarily takes her eye off the road. We might even secretly sympathise. How else will she stay on top?

And after all that happens to her, perhaps we aren’t surprised either to find that incapacity, space and time give her a different sense of priorities:

‘For the first time in almost a decade, I stop barreling a thousand miles an hour down that road. Everything stopped. And although much of the stillness of the past four months has been a painful and terrifying experience, it has given me a chance to lift my head up and have a look around … Maybe success can be something else, and maybe there’s another way to get there. Maybe there’s a different road for me with a more reasonable speed limit.’

Ahhh. Speed limits. I too have been evaluating mine. Must I also accept that ‘life can be fully lived with less’?

In her acknowledgements Lisa Genova thanks all the people actually coping with Left Neglect who shared their experiences with her, giving her ‘the real and human insight into the condition that simply can’t be found in textbooks’. And this human warmth is what makes the novel so much more than the anatomy of an illness.

So I salute you, Lisa Genova. And I thank you for putting my own problems into a healthier perspective.

Never Say GoodbyeThe next novel in my pile, Never Say Goodbye by Susan Lewis, takes me deep into the lives of women with incurable cancer … Ahhhhh. By now I’m deeply ashamed of ever having felt a twinge of self-pity.

I’ve since patrolled the Infirmary corridors in a torn and skimpy hospital gown (guaranteed to rob you of any sense of power or control you might be clinging to!) waiting for a medical verdict. My turn comes. I learn that a doctrine of doctors with yards of erudite letters after their names and aeons of experience with hearts of all descriptions, have put their mighty heads together to devise a plan to set me back on the road to recovery. It will take some months but I may not … may not … after all have to give up what I love doing. Thank you thank you thank you. The NHS at its amazing best. I may be dizzy and nauseated and fuzzy-headed and more tired than I’ve even been in my life, but I’m back on top of the world!

 

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Permanent present tense

Peppers TheatrePhew! It’s baking hot in the Peppers Theatre at lunchtime today. Ladies discreetly fan themselves with their tickets; jackets, jumpers, over-blouses are discarded. Loud thumping music reverberates through the tent for the first 20 minutes. It’s dim, the speaker is using slides, the chairman is very wordy. It’s like a how-not-to manual!

But neuroscientist Professor Suzanne Corkin, seems unfazed. When she was 27 she met a remarkable man and she remained ‘his friend’ for 46 years until his death. She’s here to tell his story; recounted in Permanent Present Tense.

Henry Molaison was 10 when he began to have petit mal attacks, 15 when generalised convulsions began. They became both debilitating and socially damaging, so in the 1950s he underwent an experimental psycho-surgical procedure. For him, the result of years of strong anti-convulsants, followed by the removal of parts of his brain, was disastrous: he lost the ability to form new memories for the rest of his life. Pause for a moment … What would that be like? … Never remembering anything. But Molaison’s catastrophe proved to be a gift to humanity, because studying him facilitated a revolution in the neuroscience of memory. As he put it himself: ‘What is found out about me helps you to help others.

The professor plays a tape of his voice as if to get us closer to the man himself, and then outlines some of the tests she and her team did on him: counting backwards in threes, recalling letters, remembering stories, reproducing drawings, matching words to definitions (oh, simple everyday words like hagira, anchorite, egress, manumit, welkin, minatory, quotidian), identifying celebrities and why they were famous (eg Julie Andrews, Lee Harvey Oswald, John F Kennedy, Ray Charles, Woody Allen, Liza Minelli, Mikhail Gorbachev). Yoiks, I’d have been struggling with some of these tests! HM (as he was known), proved a dab hand at mirror-tracing, but on most exercises he showed a complete inability to convert short term memory into long term.

And yet what shines through is the warm friendship Corkin had for her patient. He was, she says, a gentle soul, intelligent, friendly, altruistic, and witty. As he said spontaneously once: ‘It’s a funny thing, you just live and learn. I’m living and you’re learning.’

A year after his death, in line with his consent, his brain was sliced into 2,401 slices each the thickness of a hair. Ongoing invaluable material for the scientists. What a legacy.

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Summer holidays

Holiday time is here again for Scottish schools, and my calendar has several weeks blocked out in indelible ink for the grandchildren who come to stay every summer. A lovely excuse to forget work and get out and about exploring this beautiful and historic land. We’ve made for the sea several times just to escape the intense heat!

EI Book Festival programmeeAlso written in capital letters in the diary are assorted slots for the Edinburgh International Book Festival – always a highlight in the year. As usual some sessions were sold out before tickets even went on sale to the public (grrrr! Why do they do that?), but by dint of buying them on the first available day, I have seats for events about topics as diverse as fleeing a religious cult; a journey into dementia; a history of the Dukes of Devonshire; the neuroscience of memory; the death of Dr David Kelly; the ethics of dying; one woman’s experience of acute encephalitis; and the role of storytelling in maintaining sanity. Sounds pretty good to me.

I’ve also had invitations from elsewhere to attend a debate on assisted dying and to showcase my work in an arts and ethics symposium, both in August, so lots of excitement ahead.

Over my Dead Body coverOn the Over my Dead Body book front things are moving steadily.  Lots of double checking needed to be sure every step is taken on sure foundations, but this week the final final details are going off to the cover designer, and as soon as he’s worked his magic, the whole thing goes to the printer. Too late then for any more tweaking … Help! Hard to believe we’re in the home straight.

 

 

 

 

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