TITLE: Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother, & Me
AUTHOR: Sarah Leavitt
PUBLISHER: Skyhorse Publishing
PUBLISHED: 2012 (Originally published by Freehand Books in 2010)
PROCUREMENT: Public library
RELATIONSHIP TO AUTHOR: None
VERDICT: Highly recommended
Tangles is Sarah Leavitt’s graphic memoir that recounts 8 years of turmoil in her life beginning with when she suspects something is wrong with her mother, Midge, and ends with Midge’s death. Leavitt’s father, Rob, cares for Midge at home for as long as he can. Meanwhile, Leavitt, her younger sister, Hannah, and Midge’s sisters, Debbie and Sukey, help Rob support and care for Midge while her brain deteriorates from Alzheimer’s disease. Tangles refers both to the complicated relationships in the family caused by the disease and the very curly hair that both Leavitt and her mother possess.
The introduction to Tangles reminds readers that this is only the perspective of the author, that she assembled this book from notes and sketches, and that the story would be different from other family members’ points of view. Her disclaimer allowed me to forgive some of the anger that I see poured onto certain family members, like Debbie and Hannah, who don’t look favorably in the memoir when they are bossy or demanding while appearing uninvolved and selfish. Leavitt also admits that she visited three times a year (she lives over 3,500 miles away) and was not with her family constantly, like Hannah and Rob. Leavitt’s acknowledgement that her sister and father may be more stressed out or impatient because they’re watching Midge fade away up close also let me forgive those characters who appear unlikeable. Clearly, they’re under more stress and live with the disease day-to-day. Due to the distance, she gets jealous, even of a cold-hearted cat that doesn’t respond to Midge that Midge mindless loves anyway, when she visits her mother.
The simple drawings afford the family, especially the mother, privacy during a time marked by frustration, problems with hygiene, and anger. The drawings also let Midge keep some of her “sweetness,” as she calls it. There are images in which you can tell it’s her from her curly hair in a pony tail and glasses, but the rest is nondescript. Then Leavitt gives her mom a smile, just a simple pencil line U-shaped smile. Midge’s hands are drawn (without fingers, like mittens, almost) clasped together in front of her chest, apparently a common pose for those with Alzheimer’s, but it makes her look hopeful and cheerful, like she’s thinkingmarvelous! Seeing the mother in detail would have made me unable to insert myself or my loved ones into the people depicted. After Midge falls and bruises and cuts her face, Leavitt can’t stop taking pictures, and it was in that moment that I realized I was grateful I couldn’t see the detail that photos or highly-detailed drawings would provide. I was shielded.
Despite the simple drawing style, Leavitt can draw well. She describes sitting with her mother and Debbie in Midge’s final days and drawing the two women. Those drawings are included in the book, and you can see the skill of the author. Because Alzheimer’s is such a hard disease to experience, either from the patient’s or the family’s point of view, these simple drawings provide a distance that allows us to peek into the lives of the Leavitt family and stick around until the end. I became so attached to Leavitt’s family that I don’t know if I could have finished the memoir if the drawings were more detailed. At one point I was crying; during the entire ending, my chest was tight with feelings of sadness and dread. Midge was a kindergarten teacher, a pioneer, a woman who didn’t have a TV, a person who protested injustice, one who encouraged creativity. Then, Midge changed.
During the 2 years that Rob and Midge pretend like nothing is wrong prior to a diagnosis is when they could have discussed Midge’s future and treatment (because she still would have had the cognition to do so). Leavitt recalls her aunt Debbie saying it was too late for Midge to decide to kill herself because she didn’t have the cognitive capacity by the time she was diagnosed. Later, Leavitt learns that a friend’s grandmother killed herself; the woman suspected she had Alzheimer’s, was immediately diagnosed, and did away with herself. Heavy moments like this made me wonder what I would want for my own parent or grandparent, or even myself, should I have such a debilitating disease, which is one of the highlights of Tangles: it opens the door to end-of-life conversations that people in the Unites States don’t like to have. On the other hand, the hardest part didn’t appear to me to be what to do near Midge’s death, but accepting the fact that she wasn’t stressed, menopausal, or depressed; she had Alzheimer’s.
Tangles really would be impossible to finish if Leavitt didn’t balance the challenges of Alzheimer’s with small moments that Leavitt and her family treasure. When Leavitt and Hannah take their mother to a park to feed the deer, they are surprised by a sudden storm. Though the sisters drag their mother to refuge, Midge keeps leaning out into the rain and then begins to taste it. This small act makes the sisters realize that rain is not the worst thing, and they run home through the storm, laughing and jumping in puddles. In that moment, Midge seems healthy, and the story feels almost comforting despite all the sorrows it details.