Tangles: A Story about Alzheimers, My Mother, and Me


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Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother and Me

I had wanted to read this book since a while now, however something else kept coming in the way, pushing this one on the back burner. And when I finally did, it reminded me of someone who I had known with the disease and all the memories came rushing by. Anyway, back to the book. The content and context is heavy and may be that is when the book being in a graphic novel format helps. For me it was about the disease and what it does to you as a person — at the same time what it takes from you.

Fragments of memory are snatched slowly and steadily till it reaches a stage when you struggle to remember your loved ones. Sarah writes about it with a touch that makes you want to reach out to the author.

Sarah Leavitt talks about her Alzheimer's memoir Tangles

The novel covers everything — the dark humour, the spark, the burst of energy and frustration, the reaction of the family, the last moments and the very angry moments as well. To reflect on a disease through a graphic novel format is not unusual. A lot of writers have done it before. The quality of illustrations is on the spot, making it seem real enough, which for me was very important while reading the book.

The story is honest.

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It is raw. It is also quite tender. A story of a mother, her disease and her daughter. Buy Tangles from Flipkart. You are commenting using your WordPress. You are commenting using your Google account. You are commenting using your Twitter account. These master illnesses are constructed, then, as reflections of a socio-economical context in which the individual is in crisis with society, "with society conceived as the individual's adversary. Disease metaphors are used to judge society not as out of balance but as repressive" Surrounded by mystery since its "discovery" in , Alzheimer's disease has become a metaphor in many ways.

With Alzheimer's, meaning has been culturally constructed around the metaphor of losing one's mind, of "losing one's selfhood," as a "synonym of ' losing control' " Johnstone A study about metaphors and Alzheimer's disease collected data from news media, film, documentaries, and professional and academic literature and separated in three categories the metaphors most commonly used, following Sontag's model: epidemic metaphors, military metaphors, and predatory thief metaphors Johnstone In the study, Megan-Jane Johnstone concluded that Alzheimer's disease has "primarily been conceptualized and represented in a metaphorical rather than a literal way in public and professional debate [ Drawing on the works of Lakoff and Johnson on metaphor and of Susan Sontag's on illness as metaphor, Johnstone argues that the Alzheimer metaphor influences the way people think about the disease, and, most importantly, the way people dehumanize and affect constructed "notions of personhood" of people living with it Throughout Tangles , the trope of losing one's sense of personhood is visually depicted in the drawings of Midge's eyes and expression.

At the beginning of the narrative, Midge is portrayed as her regular self, always composed and interacting with the other members of the family in a familiar way. She is drawn always with her glasses on, and those become an emblem of her state of mind as the narrative, and Alzheimer's, unfurls. As episodes of dementia become more and more frequent, visual narrative suggests that the character is distancing herself from her family through the portrayal of a blank expression: Midge's glasses are still on, but no discernable expression is seen on her face.

Midge's visual characterization is taken over by a sort of blank stare that dehumanizes her, stripping her of subjectivity and playing into the metaphor of "losing one's identity" frequently associated with Alzheimer's.


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The prosthesis of the opaque glasses becomes the signifier of Alzheimer's in her character, visually indicating her deviance from the norm. An example of this transition into the blank stare can be seen in the following page Figure 2 , taken from the chapter "Cut My Life Into Pieces. The division between frames on the top part of the page also differs from the rest of the narrative, with wavy lines instead of the usual straight ones. The excerpt from her journal begins by situating the context of its writing: "Dec 21, Waiting for Mom to finish in the bathroom, so I'm just writing for a while Like I ever wanted to be so familiar with her body, her bad breath, her smelly underarms, her skinny body huddling in the bath as she looks at me wide-eyed" The frustrations of having to deal with the corporeal needs of her mother are illustrated by the portrayal of Midge as particularly vulnerable, uncertain, and in need of assistance in even the most common bath routine procedures.

The loss of personhood is not only characterized through Midge's depiction, but it is a phenomenon clearly noted by her caregiver and narrator:. If you just think about that list, then you're not as sad In her lucid moments, Midge is seen as a person again, according to the narrator's journal excerpt. In those moments, exemplified here by frames seven and nine, when Midge reclaims her personhood from Alzheimer's, her expression is clearly conveying some sort of emotion and she is seen obviously interacting with an interlocutor. Frame eleven, on the other hand, depicts a completely different Midge.

Devoid of any status of personhood, Midge is portrayed as an empty self: her expression is empty, her eyes kept hidden behind the glasses. In a powerless position, unable to lift herself up from the toilet, she is reasserted and essentialized as a person with Alzheimer's, instead of the person she was just two frames earlier in the narrative.

Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer's, My Mother and Me by Amna Butt on Prezi

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, in Staring: How We Look , argues that staring is part of how we communicate in our daily lives:. Staring affords a spontaneous moment of interpersonal connection, however brief, during which two people have the opportunity to regard and be known to one another [ The blank stare, on the other hand, is classified as an "improper" way of looking, one that entails an alienation characteristic of society's outcasts In our scripted social interactions, the blank stare becomes unreadable, shutting the person out and making her the subject of stigmatization The depiction of the blank stare as a visual mark of the progression of Midge's Alzheimer's effectively situates her as an improper person, someone outside the domain of the subject.

The quoted page shows the distinction between both statuses, as Midge appears in her familiar self-lovingly returning her daughter's gaze and interacting with her, as her daughter remembers it-and her constructed Alzheimer's self directly below it, blankly staring and unresponsive.

The juxtaposition of the two reinforces the dichotomy of personhood and non-personhood in the narrative. The visual metaphor of the empty stare works, therefore, as a visual signifier throughout the text of the progression of the illness that slowly removes Midge from the midst of the family and corroborates the common verbal metaphor of "losing one's identity" due to Alzheimer's. The visual clue of the blank stare emerges only after a certain point in the narrative. For a while, in the early stages of her illness, Midge is still having lots of lucid times, interacting with her family, and they are just starting to notice some of the signs classically associated with Alzheimer's.

During those parts of the narrative, she is still depicted with a familiar expression in her eyes, without the blank stare that would accompany her later on. Other visual metaphors are used, then, to convey the repercussions of Alzheimer's within the narrative. The quoted page Figure 3 , from the chapter entitled "Taste and Smell," illustrates the visual metaphors employed to represent the trope of the distancing of mind from body, noticed by the narrator in her mother.

The chapter starts with a description of what the family later came to realize was one of the first symptoms of Midge's Alzheimer's:. One of the first things that happened to Mom when she got sick was that she lost her sense of smell. This can be a sign of Alzheimer's.

Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer's, My Mother, and Me

But that was before we even suspected something serious. She just couldn't smell. Of course later we realized: it was one of the first steps in her separation from the world. Visually, Midge is represented as a silhouette within a confined black space, with clear borders separating her from the rest of the frame. She does not have the blank stare that eventually characterizes her in the narrative, so the reader can infer that she is still lucid, as the written text confirms.

Nevertheless, she appears locked within this space. In the fourth frame, Midge is portrayed again inside the black space, only now making a motion to leave, touching its borders, while outside a whole world of smells and tastes tempts her, apparently unreachable. The seventh frame of the page portrays the breaching of those walls. Midge, mimicking a reptilian tongue, is depicted as breaking the barrier of the confining black space with the help of sugar: "But as her sense of smell diminished, she seemed to discover the pleasure of sweetness of the tongue.

She began to grab at sugar" For those watching her, such as her daughter, the attitude seemed uncharacteristic, since Midge had a history of healthy eating that did not go hand in hand with the intake of large amounts of processed sugar.


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The discrepancy between the idea of the loved one and the reality being witnessed generates a crisis for the narrator. Visually, the more the two notions of Midge clash, the more the character appears dehumanized in the narrative. Following the frame where Midge grabs at sugar with a reptilian tongue, she is represented as someone torn in two, head on one side and body on the other, with each of the parts trapped in its own black confining space.

The written narrative corroborates the split imagery: "Mom forgot more and more of herself. She didn't know that she thought sugar was evil. She only knew it tasted good. I used to hide candy so I wouldn't get in trouble. Now I hid it so she wouldn't eat it all" The visual metaphor suggests that Midge's subjectivity is concentrated in her head, which is being kept apart from her body, now in charge of her actions.

Midge's actual self, as her daughter saw it, was locked away in a black space, unable to access the reality everybody else seemed to share. The metaphor of the split body would later in the narrative conjoin with the metaphor of the blank stare into composing the notion that Midge as someone with Alzheimer's was inherently disconnected from the person Midge.

As Johnstone argues, "situating persons with Alzheimer's disease as being 'non-persons', 'already dead', 'not human', and so forth, is not innocent" The use of such metaphors "risk negatively influencing the way people behave and think about the disease and its treatment options, including the administration of pre-emptive and pro-active euthanasia" It is not the purpose of this research to debate the ethics of euthanasia or its moral justifications, but rather to point out the problems of discussing the value of life or the quality of life when the lives of those subjects are being systematically dehumanized through discourse.

The consequences of such dehumanizing discourse in people with Alzheimer's can be seen throughout the narrative, but specially in the chapter entitled "Unreal" Figure 4. The chapter begins with the account of an acquaintance's suicide and the indication that it might have been related to Alzheimer's.

The first five frames are dedicated to that story and illustrate, in a very static fashion, the deceased, the method, and the alleged reason for it: "She was a wealthy, elegant old lady. They found her in her car in the closed carport with the engine running. She had left a medical book on her coffee table. It was open to the chapter on Alzheimer's" The detached, almost journalistic, tone of these first frames is contrasted with the rest of the chapter, which has a much more intimate and domestic atmosphere. The remaining part of the chapter portrays telephone conversations between Sarah and both her parents that occurred on the day she heard about the suicide and on the following day.

One frame stands out in the page, with a complaint Midge makes to her daughter: "I'm not a real person anymore! The jagged lines of the balloon indicate the intensity of the statement, at least for the listener, and the blackness surrounding it suggests that it was enough of a shock to block everything else from sight for Sarah. The juxtaposition of the two stories, the acquaintance's suicide and Midge's complaint, establishes a connection between them, while, at the same time, placing in evidence the metaphor of 'losing oneself' or 'losing personhood,' commonly associated with Alzheimer's.

Throughout the chapter, with the exception of the suicide account in the first few frames, the visual narrative focuses primarily on the narrator's perspective: her side of the conversation is the only one being portrayed, for example. In the following page of the chapter Figure 5 , Sarah discusses the repercussions of her mother's confession with her father, again over the telephone.

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On this page, one particular frame stands out in the same manner as in the previous page: black space filling the panel, jagged lines contouring the balloon. It presents the culmination of a conversation between Sarah and her father, where he concludes: "I think she wants to kill herself but she isn't capable of it now" The connection between these two frames further corroborates the construction of the notion of non-personhood associated with Alzheimer's and euthanasia as the supposedly logical conclusion for those with that status.


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Johnstone states that "whereas Alzheimer's disease has emerged as a synonym for losing ownership and control, euthanasia has emerged as its antonym, that is, it has come to symbolize gaining ownership and control" , original emphasis. Apparently a part of the discursive phenomenon described by Johnstone, the chapter "Unreal" is riddled with assumptions about suicide and Alzheimer's. Despite the absence of a suicide note, the narrative suggests a direct causal relation between the wealthy lady killing herself and the book opened to the chapter on Alzheimer's on the coffee table.

Later, during their telephone conversation, Rob indicates his suspicions about Midge's thoughts of suicide, a conjecture based only on his own reading of her actions. Actually, as far as the narrator informs us, Midge's explicit complaints were very specific and related the way she was being treated like a child by her husband, as well as the desire to be on her own Midge has to deal with the social stigma related to Alzheimer's, even in her own family, and internalizes the metaphors of the disease, as evidenced by the statements "I'm a nobody" and "I'm not a real person anymore!

Rob and Sarah, on the other hand, jump to conclusions about her complaints and about the old lady's suicide based on their own notions of personhood and agency in relation to Alzheimer's. Throughout the narrative, the marked representation of Midge with Alzheimer's competes and shares space with the more familiar Midge. The latter, however, begins to slowly disappear from the account, replaced by the former. Up until a certain point in the narrative, the two doubles coexist, in a balance of some sort.

At one moment, however, a shift occurs and the balance between the two Midges eschews. The marked Midge, who at first appeared only episodically, begins to completely eclipse the familiar Midge. The turning point occurs in the chapter entitled "Bird Brain" Figure 6. The one-page chapter recounts a particular episode between Sarah and her mother, in which the latter tries to call the attention of her daughter to the birds at the feeder.

Tangles: A Story about Alzheimers, My Mother, and Me Tangles: A Story about Alzheimers, My Mother, and Me
Tangles: A Story about Alzheimers, My Mother, and Me Tangles: A Story about Alzheimers, My Mother, and Me
Tangles: A Story about Alzheimers, My Mother, and Me Tangles: A Story about Alzheimers, My Mother, and Me
Tangles: A Story about Alzheimers, My Mother, and Me Tangles: A Story about Alzheimers, My Mother, and Me
Tangles: A Story about Alzheimers, My Mother, and Me Tangles: A Story about Alzheimers, My Mother, and Me

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