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Sarah Leavitt takes on the difficult task of chronicling the devastating loss of both her mother, and her mother’s memory to Alzheimer’s, in this graphic novel. Alzheimer’s makes us wonder who we are without our memories. And this memory loss disease is particularly cruel because it’s rarely predictable, and while progressive, the sufferer of the disease can vacillate from being fully adult to childlike, unreachably cut off by anger, fear or silence.
Leavitt handles this difficult memoir with aplomb. She states in her introduction, “I’ve always had a really bad memory. So when my mom got Alzheimer’s disease, I knew that I had to record what was happening to her and to our family. I wanted to be able to look back over my notes and remember all the moments of craziness, beauty and tragedy—and not lose any of them.”
She notes, “I often felt like Harriet the Spy, or, in darker moments, like a vulture hovering and waiting for Mom to say or do something that I could record and preserve, even as she slipped away from me.” Readers will share Leavitt’s awkwardness and fears of invading a parent’s privacy as she is forced by the invasive disease to bathe, dress and mother her mother.
Leavitt’s biography is also a memoir of how a family handles this extended crisis. Aunts, a loving husband, Leavitt and her sister all learn to roll with the punches using sympathy, patience, anger and humor to survive the stress of Mom’s crazy behavior, always trying their best to preserve Mom’s dignity. Leavitt’s lesbianism and Judaism help hold her together. Her girlfriend Donimo takes on the roll of caretaker equally, and when her mother dies, Leavitt finds some comfort in the Jewish tradition of saying Kaddish.
Finally, it’s the details in this book that will make it ring true to caretakers and those dealing with memory loss. “Am I a stringle?” Leavitt’s mom asks. Readers will feel the same compassion, loss and sense of poetry Leavitt feels, fielding nonsensical questions from her mom, a Harvard-educated intellectual. The black and white line drawings are simple but effective in capturing the complex emotions this story involves.
The disease inevitably triumphs, but Leavitt’s book throws a valiant punch in the gut of Alzheimer’s, for though the disease steals her mom away, it can’t touch this vivid recorded memory of the woman and her loving family.
Tangles: A Story about Alzheimer’s, My Mother and Me
Paperback, 9781616086398, 312 pp.