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Women in fictional representations of dementia

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Alice MunroThe Dementia Without Walls programme values women's stories about dementia. These are real-life stories, of women with dementia, carers, and family members. Given the wealth of these factual stories that need to be told and heard, imagined fictional stories about dementia could seem frivolous, or even trivialising. In this post, I ask: has fiction got a part to play in telling the story of dementia and helping us understand it better?

Although the representation of dementia in literary and dramatic works is not new (think, for example, of King Lear), dementia seems to be becoming increasingly visible in recent cultural representations. Take, for example, Lisa Genova's bestselling 2007 novel, Still Alice which tells a story about a Harvard professor with the early onset of Alzheimer's disease. Crucially, it is told from a first person perspective: Alice tells her story in her own words. The book has been sold in 30 countries and has been translated into over 20 languages. It is currently being made into a film starring Julianne Moore which is due to be released later in 2014.

Stories like this bring debates about dementia to new and large audiences in an accessible way. They make imagined personal stories public. They insist that the personal is political, but also that it has social, ethical, aesthetic and cultural dimensions that deserve attention too. Because they are imagined, works of fiction are not subject to the rigorous, and often restrictive, rules of ethics committees or the requirements for anonymity that come with published academic research. Fiction often blurs the lines between the autobiographical and the imagined, freeing authors to examine different possible situations and settings. This imaginative freedom allows readers and writers to try to get under the skin, and into the minds, of the characters. They can try to experience dementia and caring from the inside, rather than observing them from a more detached external perspective.

A powerful recent example of fictional writing about dementia comes from the Canadian author, Alice Munro, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013 when she was 82. Throughout her forty-five year writing career, Munro has been committed to representing women's experiences: of marriage, care, friendship, loss and memory. She has sometimes been dismissed by critics for the feminised, 'domestic' focus of her stories and their quiet, rural settings. Munro's style is realist, minimalist and determinedly unsentimental. Her short stories are often structured like memories: they linger on tiny details and then skip across decades. In this sense, they are perhaps more true to the fragmented, selective nature of memory than a more traditional novel or autobiography might be. Munro's short story, 'The Bear that Came Over the Mountain', is an unconventional love story that shatters taboos: it deals with dementia and sexuality, infidelity, the pressures, and the pleasures, of life in a care home. For me, this story offers a fine example of how fiction, with its concern both for the larger themes of our lives and for the particulars of everyday experience, can enrich our thinking about dementia and its impact on people's lives. [The story is freely available here: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/10/21/the-bear-came-over-the-mountain-2].

Short stories, novels and films cannot be relied upon to tell us facts or real-life stories of care or life with dementia. But they can make us think in new and creative ways about how life stories are constructed and told, an ongoing process that all of us are involved in every day. Cultural representations have the potential to encourage reflection, but also to help shape public attitudes towards dementia; they can also help us to value the process of storytelling itself.

Dr Alice Hall, Department of English and Related Literature, University of York

Tags: fiction, representations of women Written 2014-08-19

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