First published in the early 90s and concerned with late 80s America, Michael Ignatieff’s novel Scar Tissueexplores the dementia narrative at a point when much less was known about the illness. In fact the narrator, a 45 year old philosophy professor, does not use the term dementia when describing his mother’s condition. Her official prognosis is early onset senility, though the fact that he is able to describe previous generations of close relatives with similar symptoms would suggest some kind of dementia with a degree of genetic heredity. The specific diagnosis and terminology seems less important than the precise and insightful way Ignatieff goes about describing the unbreakable, and at times seemingly unhealthy bond, between a woman living with, then dying of, complications associated with dementia, and her devoted middle-aged son. Ignatieff’s fiction is so well-crafted and believable I continually had to remind myself that I was reading a work of fiction rather than a memoir.
The plot of Scar Tissue is a familiar one. A woman in her sixties begins to forget, then slowly loses her ability to look after herself. After her husband, and primary carer’s, sudden and unexpected death her sons make the difficult decision to sell the family farm and move her into residential care. It’s well-written but somewhat obvious terrain. However, there were two aspects of Scar Tissue which I found incredibly powerful and unique. Firstly, I appreciated reading an honest and powerfully written exploration of the relationship between a son and mother living with dementia. Whilst still living at home, the mother’s physical and emotional care falls almost entirely to the narrator and I found it quite refreshing to hear a man speak honestly and with tremendous kindness of how he bathes, dresses and feeds his mother, all the time ensuring her dignity remains intact.
The second thing which makes Scar Tissue a unique dementia narrative -especially amongst other similar carer-centric narratives- is the way the mother’s illness and eventual deaths completely upends the narrator’s life. Faced with the possibility of losing his connection with his mother he places every other aspect of his life -career, marriage, family- on hold and becomes almost obsessed with visiting her and caring for her. His marriage falls apart. He loses all sense of satisfaction in his job. Eventually his mental health deteriorates to a point where he no longer sees the point in life. It’s not an easy read, but Scar Tissue is one of the few fictional accounts I’ve come across where loss and grief associated with the dementia experience is explored in a really comprehensive way. As such, I found it a bleak but nonetheless important read.
Scar Tissue was published by Chatto & Windus in 1993