Still Alice Book Review

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Genova, L. (2009). Still Alice. New York, NY: Pocket Books. $15.00, paper. ISBN-13:9781439102817

According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, 5.1 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease. 5 % of those people suffer from the tragic early-onset form that can strike a person in their 50’s or even younger. In the award-winning New York Times Best-Seller novel, Still Alice, author Lisa Genova paints a bittersweet portrayal of a woman with a strong will and a memory that is fading. Alice Howland is a respected Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. She is 50 years-old and a mother of three. She is married to John Howland, a Professor of Biology, at Harvard University. Alice also suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease and it is changing life as she knows it. The book is written as if a secret onlooker is journaling Alice’s life. Instead of having chapters, the book is broken down chronologically into months starting with September 2003 and ending with September 2005. The author writes the book in such a way that the reader is drawn in and has no other choice than to share in the deep emotions felt by Alice and those close to her. The novel is emotionally charged, but it can also be emotionally draining. Still Alice is a book that reaches out to anyone who suffers from or is close to someone who suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

Alice Howland leads an extremely high-paced life. As a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, she has many responsibilities such as; lecturing, research, speaking engagements, conferences, and mentoring a graduate student who is working on his dissertation. As a wife she helps support her husband in his research and other responsibilities. She is also extremely athletic and enjoys running several miles a day. Alice makes it clear that running is very important to her. Alice also makes it clear that education is of the utmost importance to her and pushes this belief on her adult children.

Alice’s memory, the one thing that has given her such prestige and honor, begins to fail her. The first time the reader is presented with a glimpse of what is to come is when Alice speaks at Stanford University and forgets a key word in her presentation. The word was right on the tip-of-her-tongue. Unfortunately, her neurons were not able to connect and she was forced to continue her presentation without the use key word. She begins to misplace things like her Blackberry. The reader is shown just how serious these little episodes are when Alice is running in Harvard Square, a place that she has visited numerous times, and cannot remember the route back to her house. This was the last straw for Alice and she begin doing research on her symptoms. At first she believed that her symptoms were due to menopause. When she determined that was not the case, she sought professional medical advice. This created more questions than answers. Alice, not knowing where else to go, went to a neurologist who put her through many tests and examinations.

The neurologist concluded that Alice had early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. This was a devastating blow to Alice as it would be to anyone burdened with this news. At first, Alice hides this information from everyone including her husband. However, after not being able to remember certain things, as well as some unexplained embarrassing actions, she confessed to her husband. A little time later together they told their children and those whom they were close to. Alice told no one at Harvard University until several months into her diagnosis. When she was questioned by her supervisor about negative evaluations from some of her students, she finally came clean. From that point on she felt like an outcast. She felt that no one respected her. She felt like a leper. In many cases that was exactly how she was treated.

Alice’s disease progressed quickly. Memories, names, faces, and the things she knew so well began slipping rapidly. Alice devised a plan. She did not want to be a burden on her family and friends so she created a list of five questions. She would ask herself these questions every day. The moment she could not answer just one of the questions she was to follow the directions stored on her laptop under a file named “butterfly”. These directions were for her to swallow a bottle full of tranquilizers, lie in bed, and die in her sleep. Fortunately for Alice, as her ability to answer the questions dwindled so did her ability to remember to ask herself the questions. The novel concludes with Alice who is now much different than her former self. The beliefs, values, and walls she had formed throughout her life had been shattered. Many of the changes limited her. However, after the changes took place she was able to connect with her family in new ways and on a deeper level. In the end Alice is Still Alice. She is just a different version.

The author, Lisa Genova, has a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Harvard University, taught Neuroanatomy at Harvard University, and has done brain research at Yale Medical School. Her goal in writing this book, as well as all the others she has written, is to inform the public about neurological diseases using a platform that is easily accessible. Her background and motive gives her the authority needed to write this book. Still Alice draws the reader in, grabs tight, and does not let go. The story can be difficult at times to read with the myriad of emotions that ebb and flow throughout. However, with each new page the author draws the reader in closer still. From the start, I felt respect for Alice. She was accomplished and driven. She had built a beautiful life with a wonderful family. The flaws she had, in her relationship with her daughter Lydia, only served to make her seem more human. As Alice’s disease progressed, I felt a deeper connection to her. Her pain and frustration felt real. The pain and suffering felt by her husband John and other family and friends was surreal. When I try to place myself in John’s shoes I cannot imagine what it would be like. The author was brilliant at opening the eyes of the reader to the world of early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. This theme was presented in such a way that little to no previous understanding of neurological diseases was needed. This novel left me with a new understanding of early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease and a deeper compassion for those suffering from this tragic disease and the people that are close to them.    

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The Importance Of Religion In Death And Dying

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We will all die one day. This is an unavoidable fact for us all. As we age, we begin thinking about this topic and how we will handle it when it is our turn. Many people experience anxiety about death and dying, especially as they approach the end of their lives (Tomer and Eliason 2000). This anxiety often includes concern about unknown physical changes, dread of possible pain and stress associated with dying, fear of separation from loved ones, and uncertainty about what will occur following death (Tomer and Eliason 2000). One potential response to this anxiety is to seek refuge, strength, and hope through religious activities. According to Carl Jung (1969), most religions can be considered “complicated systems of preparation for death” (p. 408). Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian religions answer the question: where do we go when we die.

According to Duff and Hong (1995), Buddhist beliefs about death and dying fundamentally explore the concept of reincarnation, or a process in which one’s spirit is continuously reborn in another body until a state of ultimate enlightenment is attained. A Buddhist soul can be reincarnated into five different realms. These realms are the animal kingdom; the hells; the realm of jealous gods; the human realm and the heavens. Determining where your soul resides is based on karma, or the accumulation of all your actions during a lifetime. According to Duff and Hong (1995), “correct and compassionate deeds will allow your soul to be reborn in higher, more pure levels of existence, until that desired state of nirvana is reached” ( p.30). Buddhist believe hell is not a place where one suffers in eternal torment; rather, it is a temporary abode where you are able to transcend the negative karma you accumulated during your earthly life (Duff & Hong, 1995). Buddhism does not accept the idea of a permanently bad soul but instead subscribes to the concept of a soul as an entity which is connected to the dynamic universe. Only an accomplished Buddhist (a non-returner) can be reborn in the higher heavens called Pure Abodes, while formless realms are meant for Buddhists who are capable of meditation on the arupajhanas, or the most supreme concept reserved for skilled meditators (Duff & Hong, 1995).

According to Parsuram and Sharma (1992), a belief in the cyclical reincarnation of the soul is one of the foundations of the Hindu religion. Death is viewed as a natural aspect of life, and there are numerous epic tales, sacred scriptures, and Vedic guidance that describe the reason for death’s existence, the rituals that should be performed surrounding it, and the many possible destinations of the soul after departure from its earthly existence (Parsuram & Sharma, 1992). While the ultimate goal is to transcend the need to return to life on earth, Hindus believe they will be reborn into a future that is based primarily on their past thoughts and actions (Parsuram & Sharma, 1995). According to Wulff (1991) cremation is a ritual designed to do much more than dispose of the body; it is intended to release the soul from its earthly existence. Hindus believe that cremation (compared to burial or outside disintegration) is most spiritually beneficial to the departed soul (Wulff, 1991). This is based on the belief that the astral body will linger, as long as the physical body remains visible. If the body is not cremated, the soul remains nearby for days or months (Wulff, 1991). The only bodies that are not generally burned are unnamed babies and the lowliest of castes, who are returned to the earth. The standard cremation ceremony begins with the ritual cleansing, dressing and adorning of the body. The body is then carried to the cremation ground as prayers are chanted to Yama, invoking his aid. Wulff (1995) states, “it is the chief mourner, usually the eldest son, who takes the twigs of holy kusha grass, flaming, from the Doms’ (the untouchable caste who tend funeral pyres) eternal fire to the pyre upon which the dead has been laid”(p.37). “He circumambulates the pyre counterclockwise: for everything is backward at the time of death”(Wulff, 1991, p.38). As he walks round the pyre, his sacred thread, which usually hangs from the left shoulder, has been reversed to hang from the right. He lights the pyre. The dead, now, is an offering to Agni, the fire (Wulff, 1991). Here, as in the most ancient Vedic times, the fire conveys the offering to heaven. After the corpse is almost completely burned, the chief mourner performs the rite called kapalakriya, the rite of the skull, cracking the skull with a long bamboo stick, thus releasing the soul from entrapment in the body. According to Wulff (1991), after the cremation, the ashes are thrown into a river, ideally the Ganges river, and the mourners walk away without looking back.

According to Falkenhain and Handal (2003), a belief that Jesus Christ was the son of God, that he died for our sins, and was resurrected from the grave is central to the Christian belief. Because of this sacrifice that Christ made for all mankind, we are granted eternal life. The only requirement is a belief that Christ died and rose from the grave. Accoring to Falkenhain and Handal (2003), Jesus Christ was God in flesh that was born to a mortal woman named Mary. Mary was a virgin and God placed her son inside her. Jesus Christ was a great teacher and prophet. At age 33 he was beaten and nailed to a cross by Roman soldiers because he claimed he was the son of God. Jesus died on the cross and was placed in a tomb. After three days he was resurrected. He then ascended into the clouds and into heaven. Faith in this belief will guarantee eternal life in heaven. According to Falkenhain and Handal (2003), heaven is beautiful place above earth where God, the angels, and all the saved souls live together in harmony. There is not any pain, grief, or sorrow in heaven. In heaven we can reconnect with saved relatives and friends who have already died. In heaven all our needs are met and we are eternally happy.

Religions help shape the world around us. They explain where we come from. They explain why we are here. They also explain where we are going. As people age they begin to think more and more about death and dying. We begin seeing our limitations. We begin realizing that we are not 21 anymore. We find the tasks that were once so easy now take a little longer. We begin to realize that we are not immortal. Religion serves an important purpose. Religion offers us a chance at immortality. The peace of mind that this offers is priceless.

Works Cited

 Duff, R. W., & Hong, L. K. (1995). Age density, religiosity and death anxiety in retirment communities. Review of Religious Research, 37, 19-32.

Falkenhain, M., & Handal, P. (2003). Religion, death attitudes, and belief in afterlife in the elderly: Untangling the relationships. Journal of Religion and Health, 42, 67-76.

Jung, C.G (1969). The soul and Death, Volume 8 of the Collected Works of C.G. Jung: The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, 8, 405-408.

Neimeyer, R., Wittkowski, J., & Moser, R. P. (2004). Psychological research on death attitudes: An overview and evaluation. Death Studies, 28, 309-340.

Parsuram, A., & Sharma, A. (1992). Functional relevance of belief in life-after-death. Journal of Personality and Clinical Studies, 8, 97–100.

Tomer, A., & Eliason, G. (2000). Attitudes about life and death: Toward a comprehensive model of death anxietyDeath attitudes and the older adult, 17, 78-84

Wulff, D. M. (1991). Psychology of religion: classic and contemporary views. New York: Wiley, 2, 38-64.