Still Alice, Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, 2014
“All my life I’ve accumulated memories. They’ve become, in a way, my most precious possessions.”
One of the enduring questions that faces us, as humans, is that of how we remain the same person throughout our lives. What exactly is it that follows us through the entirety of our lives, the slippery ephemeron of Self? In Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s film Still Alice, the issue is given an extra poignancy.
Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a renowned linguistics professor and mother of three who, shortly after her 50th birthday, is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. While her family rally around her, her mind starts to unravel as she loses memories one by one. A heart-breaking tale and one that is, to many, all too familiar.
As her illness takes hold, Alice begins to lose her sense of purpose and strength. Once a formidable, progressive and ambitious academic and expert on the linguistic development of babies, she disintegrates throughout the course of the film to an incoherent husk, barely able to formulate any kind of language for herself. Throughout this devastating transformation, exactly what is it about her that stays constant? What is it that is still Alice?
It would seem clear to any of us that we are in many ways different from who we were at age 5. We are taller, stronger and wiser (for the most part). Biologically our bodies have gone through deep cellular transformations. Every second cells within us are born and others die, and we become, like the legendary ship of Theseus, reborn.
Yet nonetheless, we call ourselves the same self. Historically philosophers viewed the continuing self as the soul, an ill-defined concept with little scientific backing. When such religiosity began to be abandoned, philosophers were left with a very real dilemma. If we are nothing but our bodies, and our bodies constantly change, then am I the same as I was at age 5?
One of the first enlightenment philosophers to formulate a theory of continuity was John Locke. Locke’s idea was that the real link that follows us through our lives was a psychological continuity through memory. At any one point in time we are aware of ourselves, and what links that to a previous incarnation is memory of the same awareness at a previous point in time. I remember being self-aware at age 5, and I am similarly self-aware now, so I must indeed be the same self.
But where does this leave Alice? She undoubtedly has some self-awareness, but as her memory begins to disintegrate, her continued sense of self must begin to disintegrate as well. As parts of her life are blacked out from her, it is almost as if these are times unlived. Indeed, if she has no conscious subjective experience of an event happening, with what certainty can she truly say it has happened?
As Alice starts to misplace items by (for example) placing her shampoo in the fridge, her illness is effectively erasing parts of her life. In one particularly poignant yet understated moment her husband John (Alec Baldwin) finds her mobile phone hidden in a kitchen draw. Alice remarks, “I was looking for that last night”, and John turns conspiratorially to one of their daughters and whispers, “that was a month ago.”
Whether or not we are to consider Alice to be the same person after her illness as before, it is clear that there has been some deep transformation.
As is so often tragically the case with Alzheimer’s patients, Alice becomes a child again, ending the film in a role-reversed maternal embrace from her daughter. It is this constant state of self-in-flux that reminds me of the Buddhist doctrine of anatta – or no-self.
The Buddha taught that, like a constantly rolling river, we are never the same from one second to the next, but we are nonetheless constant.
A recurring theme in the film is that of transformation, highlighted by repeated references to nature’s great transformer, the butterfly. Alice herself, rather than performing one simple transition from caterpillar to butterfly, constantly flutters on the wind, transitioning from one state to the next, an eternal butterfly.