Anthropologist, artist and writer Dana Walrath became a live-in carer for her mother Alice after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis became too much for her to manage alone. Moving her mother from her apartment in New York to the family home in rural Vermont, Walrath used the months they spent together to both record her mother’s dementia journey and forge connections which weren’t previously there. From the start, Walrath is honest about the fact that she is not particularly close to her mother and sees this period of dependency as an opportunity to bond before it is too late. I appreciated the honesty Walrath brought to the stories she tells about her mother and particularly their interactions and conversations. I also loved the humour in this book. It’s quite a gentle, upbeat account of dementia. Alice is placid and compliant throughout her illness. Walrath goes to great pains to show how her mother retained her humanity throughout her journey with dementia. I also really appreciated the way snippets of Alice’s history and the Armenian cultural tradition she belonged to is deftly woven into the narrative.
Aliceheimer’s is an unusual format. Each page contains both a small piece of observational writing and a beautiful artwork which illustrates the sentiment. The art is a mixture of collage and pencil drawing. Each scene depicting Alice is fashioned out of the cut-up pages of a copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Thematically the Carroll text works marvellously as it allows Walrath to explore both the confusing and disorientating elements of her mother’s illness and the fantastical, imaginative scenarios which her dementia frequently pitches her into. I loved the use of collaged texts. It seemed the perfect medium for depicting Alice who, as a lifelong reader, was still enjoying the physical pleasure of holding a book and the comfort of being read to, long after her dementia had significantly impacted her ability to function normally in other areas of her life.
Aliceheimer’s is part of a fascinating series of publications which explore various medical issues through a combination of illustration and writing. The series is called Graphic Medicine and if the other publications are anywhere near as powerful as Aliceheimer’s I’d thoroughly recommend checking them out.
Aliceheimer’s was published by Penn State Press in 2016