Witnessing the self


I watched a film this week, Still Alice, about the slow deterioration of a 50-year-old woman named Alice, played by Julianne Moore, who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

At a point she records a video journal to herself, to be watched in the inevitable event that she can no longer answer a series of questions: What is the name of your oldest daughter? When is your birthday? What street do you live on? 

They are innocuous bits of information that most of us take for granted until life robs us of the ability. But to someone trying to hold on to memory, they are everything. The video journal urged Alice, once she could no longer  answer, to kill herself--a morbid thought, but understandable, given the circumstances.

Having watched my own mother's slow deterioration and death from cancer, the film stuck with me. (At a point, Alice even says, "I'd rather have cancer." People wear ribbons and feel sorry for you, not embarrassed that you can't remember a name or form a thought.)

Though I have spent many years exorcising the trauma--penning a memoir, Elizabeth's Daughter, about losing her and finding myself through writing--my mother's death left an indelible imprint on my psyche that remains. It is interesting to me that I chose writing, and have spent weeks and months over the past 10 (11? 12?) years in solitude trying to figure out exactly how I felt and feel about it.

It is the kind of rigorous self-analysis that begets an isolation that can be both a blessing and a curse.

To sit with sadness and write, alone, is difficult work. I find that what's missing for me, until the book is out, is a witness. Someone to hear and see what I have felt and feel. It is the thing I have wanted most out of my life that has been the most elusive, largely why I write and make films and generally try to express myself: I want to be heard.

And there is a curious silence in solitude that feels like invisibility. It is an unbearable thing. All my thoughts and ideas lying unseen on the page. Even the words I write here will hardly be seen by 10 or 20 or 30 human beings. And I imagine this is why I want to publish a book: to make a real thing. Something people can take home and flip through and ponder over, making my thoughts--and me, by extension--more real.

But I acknowledge, deep down, what I really want is for the people closest to me in my life, the people who love and care about me, to see and hear me. I suppose it is the fear of losing this that makes living on, for Alice, so unbearable. I hope that, when the book is finished, people will understand me, know my story. It is a kind of obsession now, to do what my mother could not in the time she was given.

But the point of this blog, what I really wanted to say, was that tonight, while thousands were marching for Eric Garner and bearing witness to injustice, I made a video journal. Not anything like the video blogs I have been trying (and failing) to make over the past few months (having recorded several that I ultimately deleted). I spoke to myself to witness this moment now, to honor the past, the pain, and hope for the future.

I realize now the problem with the video blog, why I have been failing, is that I am trying to make pretty what is a difficult process: writing a book and making a feature film. It is often lonely and ugly and filled with piles of rejection letters. There is no glory. And what little you might expect will inevitably fade. People may think you brilliant for a time until they move on to someone more brilliant. Or they will tell you your story is not that interesting and nobody will buy your book or pay money to sit in a theatre and watch your movie.

There are days I lie in bed and can't get up (most notably, after a pitch to an agent last year). There are days I don't have the courage or self esteem to write another word or make another phone call. There are the days when I wonder if I can apply for that most prestigious screenwriting lab another year and face the inevitable rejection. And the days when I am irrationally afraid of opening my laptop and greeting the pile of work ahead of me.

And yet you go on.

So tonight, my message is that we all must have the courage to witness ourselves--to stand in our truth and language our lives. Yes, we must witness each other's struggles, but we can and should start first with our own. Years after my mother's death, but still before the harvest, it is the only thing that has kept me sane. --AL.

P.S. Read about how Lisa Genova self-published Still Alice and turned it into a New York Times bestseller.

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