Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me
By Sarah Leavitt
Skyhorse Publishing, 128 pages, $14.95
Early on in Sarah Leavitt’s heartbreaking account of her mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease comes what I think of as The Conversation. It’s the moment a family needs but at the same time dreads, when the reality everyone has been avoiding for months or years is finally voiced.
There’s never a good time to discuss a fatal illness with no known cure. But confronting Alzheimer’s in the flesh invites a different level of tragedy — the certainty of descent into a confounding kind of dementia that takes the person you love through a series of new and bizarre personalities. Not for nothing is it called “the long goodbye.”
When my mother was diagnosed, a close friend who is a neurologist looked straight at me and said, with unforgettable honesty, “Let’s hope she dies of something else first.”
So The Conversation is not an easy moment to portray, especially in a memoir like this, which mixes handwritten words with line drawings that in another context might appear childish or whimsical. But Leavitt’s simplicity works in her favor. Just as she gathers the courage to face her parents, Midge and Rob, and to express concern over her mother’s growing forgetfulness and erratic behavior, Midge blurts out, “I have Alzheimer’s.”
The declaration is presented in a black-shaded panel: The obituary feel of it emphasizes the sorrow and aloneness of the statement. I’ve been there. That’s how it feels. Suddenly, it’s very dark and frightening outside. Leavitt nailed it.
I felt that way about the whole memoir; it works. At first, I wasn’t sure whether Leavitt could do justice to the confusing feelings and family dynamics that she aims to portray in “Tangles,” which she calls “a story about Alzheimer’s, my mother and me.” While the genre of graphic novels has grown ever more sophisticated, it’s still a challenge to turn comic book heroes into complicated human beings.
But Leavitt is able to make her characters seem real with a few strokes of the pencil and fewer words. We get the family dynamics: unorthodox, old-style hippie parents who raised two girls — Sarah and her younger sister, Hannah — in a nonreligious household that still felt very Jewish. Sarah is the prodigal daughter, who moves far away to establish her own identity, and then becomes so pulled into the family drama that she becomes its chronicler. The book is interspersed with photographically reproduced snatches of her mother’s deteriorating handwriting and other material that Sarah collected along the way, to document the descent as if to prove it actually happened.
Or maybe that was just a daughter’s way of coping.
Midge was relatively young to be afflicted with the disease, and that adds to the heartbreak for all concerned. After attending Hannah’s joyful Jewish wedding she remembers nothing: