DRAWN TO HISTORY: Healing, Dementia, and the Armenian Genocide in the Intertextual Collage of Aliceheimer's.

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Author: Crystal Yin Lie
Date: Spring-Summer 2021
From: Biography(Vol. 44, Issue 2-3)
Publisher: University of Hawaii Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 9,081 words
Lexile Measure: 1610L

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In Dana Walrath's memoir, Aliceheimer's: Alzheimer's Through the Looking Glass (2016), cut-out pages of text from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland give material form to figures of Walrath's mother, Alice, an Armenian woman in her late seventies living with dementia. These papier colle and pencil portraits of "Alice" guide readers through a journey of reimagining dominant medico-scientific narratives of dementia and aging. Walrath writes in the introduction:

People with Alzheimer's are perceived as zombies, bodies without minds, waiting for valiant researchers to find a cure. For Alice and me, the story was different. Alzheimer's was a time of healing and magic. Of course, there is loss with dementia, but what matters is how we approach our losses and our gains. Reframing dementia as a different way of being, as a window into another reality, lets people living in that state be our teachers--useful, true humans who contribute to our collective good. (4)

Countering the pathologizing logics of the cure narrative with a perspective that transcends the medical context, Walrath's introduction exemplifies some of graphic medicine's commitments to interrogating power relations in medical discourse. It also highlights the "power of unorthodox sources, including comics" (Squier 48), and in this case, the valuable perspective of dementia experience. Simultaneously, Walrath's reframing of dementia is also an occasion for exploring her own family history and identity as a second-generation Armenian. Juxtaposing personal essay with the visual-verbal affordances of comics, intertextual collage, and the altered book, Walrath links her experiences of caregiving, Alice's dementia, and Armenian history to the adventures of Carroll's Wonderland, creating a sense of both dissonance and exploratory freedom to broach subjects that might typically be regarded as unapproachable: aging, coping with Alzheimer's, death, and the Armenian Genocide.

The intertext of Wonderland works synergistically with the graphic form and subject of Alice. Rather than resist the associations of comics with juvenilia, and dementia as a reversion to childhood, Walrath wields these notions to her advantage, fusing the personal and the historical across irresolvable stories that are discordantly about both trauma and transformative "healing and magic" (4). This is particularly important because popular stories of dementia predominantly focus on what it "might feel like to be so marginalized, bewildered, and neglected" at the expense of capturing the humanity and life that still exists (Kruger 118). Visualizing and materializing the body, Aliceheimer's is a counternarrative to mainstream conceptions of persons with dementia as "empty shells of themselves," "already gone," and "ruins" of a former self. The stigmatizing rhetoric of dementia suggests some of the profound limits of empathy--how can one empathize with an "empty shell" or "ruin" without that empathy being born out of feelings like pity and fear? In typical representations of dementia, sources of empathy are often overdetermined and based on the reification of these absences of self. (1) Contrarily through the heightened materiality of its assemblage of Carroll's text with Alice's resurfaced childhood memories and whimsical avatar, Aliceheimer's asserts the presence of the self, prompting reflection on readers' affective engagement...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A707075976