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If you're new to this blog and want some context for it, read this post from the day I announced my Alzheimer's disease and this post about the day I announced I had lost it. For more info, visit my website with my autobiography and all blog entries in chronological order for easier reading to catch up. There's also a sermon on the spiritual lessons I've learned through this journey through my damaged mind.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Flowers for Algernon

Washington DC
On the train home from Seattle, I read Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.  The novel is written as a series of journal entries written by Charlie, a mentally challenged man who has been selected to participate in a clinical trial of a surgical procedure designed to double or triple his IQ.  Impatient scientists choose him as the first human subject after only one experimental mouse, Algernon, exhibits signs of increased intelligence.  Indeed, the surgery is successful, and we experience Charlie’s increasing intellectual brilliance: he develops a photographic memory, learns ten languages, quickly becomes an expert in several different unrelated fields, and so on.  However, we also watch, as Charlie becomes more isolated, not only because nobody can follow him intellectually but also because—in his emotional naïveté—he doesn’t recognize how he alienates others with his aloofness and lack of empathy.

But then Charlie notices that Algernon has begun to regress and is soon having trouble with the simplest mazes.  Charlie, of course, recognizes his likely future: he will lose his newly acquired IQ and may even lose more than he had originally gained.  He returns to the experimental lab and works feverishly, not to change the course of his own disease but to discover the metabolic pathways that doomed the surgical experiment from the beginning. 

Meanwhile he chronicles his own decline.  Knowing what’s coming, he has to watch himself deteriorate.  Sound familiar? 

It’s a good read, but I found two lessons particularly important.  Charlie’s intellectual descent doesn’t seem to bother him as much as one might expect.  He has succeeded in finding the medical reason behind his decline and feels satisfied with his life.  Second, as he loses his intellectual brilliance, he opens up emotionally, and old, withered friendships become rich again, perhaps richer than before. 

In this brief summary, the novel sounds Pollyannaish.  It isn’t.  It is, however, hopeful.  Regardless of what too many of us in the culture believe, intellectual intelligence is not the be-all-and-end-all of life.  There are, of course, intellectual geniuses who are also empathic and compassionate, so the issue is not intelligence per se.  But there is something in his declining intelligence that allows a richer emotional life.

This rings true for me.  I can’t really explain it, but at least I am finding that the increasing emotional openness and deeper friendships more that match what I’m losing cognitively. 

As I’ve written before, there are caveats.  First, I’m only mildly cognitively impaired and I may be watching through rose-colored lenses.  In a sense, I have the best of both worlds: increasing emotional intelligence and still persistent intellectual intelligence.  Secondly, Flowers for Algernon, like Still Alice, is a novel, a story, by a cognitively intact author who can only imagine the inner life of a mentally challenged person.  Third, the story describes little about the suffering of others close to him and nothing about the suffering of caregivers. 

Nevertheless, while it may or may not be an accurate depiction of intellectual decline, I found it deeply meaningful.  I will eventually become profoundly impaired myself and will certainly die, but the journey does not, apparently, have to be the culturally-expected suffering.


  1. As my Mother-in-law's dementia progressed she lost her judgementalism and become loving and accepting. Her daughter got all the affection she always wanted but her mother could not express before. It was beautiful. I hope this for you.

  2. "Flowers for Algernon" was made into a movie called, "Charlie." who was played by Cliff Robertson, I believe. Very touching movie.

    What I got out of both the book and the movie, was that Charlie was happy in both situations. Different but the same. He was more friendly when mentally handicapped, but you could see how he enjoyed both ways. I have seen a lot of people in Special Care that love their days, the activities, visiting, singing, lots of things are fun to do.

    I always hate to hear people say things like, "If I ever get that way, just shot me dead." they haven't seen the easygoing happiness, and the little things that people enjoy. You can get as much fun out of an ice cream social in special care as you can in a cruise to Bermuda. After all, I believe life is made up of little things.

  3. As a culture we place so much emphasis on intellectual intelligence, thus making Alzheimer's one of the most feared diseases. Would we be less afraid if we knew that it could lead to a rich emotional life with deep friendships?

    In the memory loss group which I joined 3 years ago, I found total acceptance and comfort -- never having to worry whether I would lose my words or my train of thought. What I used to be or used to be able to do was unimportant. Our common struggle wiped out all the differences in our ages, our genders, our backgrounds

    I certainly feel blessed that I had the opportunity to go to college and have a satisfying professional career. But that doesn't define me any more, if it ever did. My relationships do. Acceptance and friendship is priceless.

  4. Thanks to all three of you above for writing. As I've read the responses to this blog, it seems that your comments reflect the experiences of many.

  5. Anonymous12/09/2013

    David, I just want you to know how much I enjoy your blog - I feel you still have more mental alertness than most people ever had or will have - please keep us on your journey. Dori from AZ

  6. This is interesting. I just read the short story version of Flowers for Algernon (which predates the novel version), and i thought about suggesting it to you, but didn't (thinking it might make you sad). It is a good story.

  7. Anonymous12/10/2013

    My experience with my mother was similar to how Lisa Sands described her mother-in-law. My mother became more loving, playful and accepting of herself and others. My sister and I got to see her gentle side, one not seen before. She even forgot who was the "good" kid! Anna from TX


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