We Are Not Ourselves is a look inside a family struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a story about how a husband, wife and son cope with the overwhelming challenges they face and with a heartbreaking illness that grinds to its inevitable finish.
By the time she meets Ed Leary, Eileen Tumulty has already decided what she wants out of life and that is to escape from the Woodside, Queens neighborhood where she grew up. As the daughter of hard-working, but hard-drinking Irish parents in a loveless marriage, Eileen spent most of her childhood propping up her mother and running the household.
Once married, Eileen’s dreams of an elegant home seem within reach. She is a successful nurse. Ed is a brilliant research scientist and she can already envision where his career path will take them. A baby boy, Connell, completes the picture. What Eileen doesn’t foresee is Ed’s resistance to change. He’s happy where he is, first as a tireless and hyper-focused researcher and then as a professor at a community college, intent on making his mark right there.
This is a story in itself, full of complicated family dynamics and marital conflict, but when Ed is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the Leary family changes into something else. Once again, the burden falls on Eileen to step up and make key family decisions, including the most important one, how long to keep Ed at home.
I was drawn into We Are Not Ourselves because of this story set-up. Thomas has a simple, sometimes clipped, but often elegant writing style. He includes a lot of side characters and scenes, however, which plump the book up to its hefty 623 pages. It’s hard not to question these digressions, including a good deal of baseball references, most appreciated by fans, but extraneous to others. Side plots, such as Connell’s stint as a doorman and Eileen’s visits to a series of cult-like therapy sessions, have only loose connections to the plot. In addition, a long rant about the American healthcare system seems contrived and preachy.
Despite its length, the main characters, especially Eileen and Connell, remain undeveloped, which makes it hard to identify with them. Because the reader knows little else about Eileen’s emotions, her drive for a better life merely comes across as selfish, cold and judgmental. Connell is equally self-absorbed and unable to do his part. It’s tempting to give him the teenager’s pass for being irresponsible, but there’s just not enough in his character to warrant it. Thomas leaves a frustrating gap between all three characters and when he does bring them together, their emotional connections are hard to believe.
Ed is the center of the story and is the most developed character. Even before his diagnosis, it’s easier to sympathize with him when Eileen tries to push him around. That also makes it easy to dislike her and Connell. Maybe that’s the whole point of the book’s construction, to force the reader to focus on Ed. And perhaps that’s why Eileen and Connell are such flat characters. I guess I just wanted to like someone in the story. The only one who came close was Ed.
Criticism aside, I did enjoy the book and there were many moving sections and telling dialogue, where only a few words make a great point, one of Thomas’s obvious talents. Here’s a great example.
When Ed receives his diagnosis, right away, Eileen says they need to get a second opinion. Ed’s response says it all, revealing a keen sense of self-awareness:
We don’t need a second opinion. He’s the second opinion.
Another favorite scene is when Ed and Eileen are at Macy’s. Ed is intent on buying her a dress for Christmas. He wants to surprise her, but Eileen has to help. His ability to communicate has already begun to crumble, but he puts his words just right:
‘I like you in blue,’ he said. The simplicity of the declaration put an ache in her chest. He directed no animosity at her for having rescued him in the transaction. He seemed to feel only a naked desire to please. He was being stripped of pride, of ego, ruined, destroyed. He was also being softened.
Scenes in the nursing home are equally moving, giving the reader insight into the meaning of Ed’s limited words, some of them heartbreaking. I think this is the strongest part of the book. And the most beautiful part of the book is Ed’s letter to Connell. While a reminder that there are no guarantees in life is nothing new, Ed has the best advice for his son:
What matters most right now is that you hear how much I want you to live your life and enjoy it. I don’t want you to be held back by what’s happened to me.
A good message and Connell will try to take it to heart.
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