Monday, November 28, 2011

Still Alice--Deleted Scene

My husband and I love watching the Deleted Scenes from the movies we rent.  I love these bonus scenes because they give us a private peek into the creative process of that film.  Those scenes were written, the actors memorized their lines. Time and money were spent on costume, lighting, makeup, direction.  But some honest and brave editing minds decided that these scenes didn't serve the film as a whole, and they were cut.  Out they went!

Manuscripts go through a similar editing process.  If there are words, sentences, or scenes in the draft of my novel (and there always are) that don't serve the story as a whole, it's my responsibility to take them out.  William Faulkner called it "killing your darlings."

I wish books, like rented movies, included a Deleted Scenes section at the back.  Here's a deleted scene from STILL ALICE for you.  It includes a character you don't know, Alice's friend Susanna.  You don't know her because I deleted her entire character from the story.  It didn't need her.

Sorry, Susanna darling, nothing personal.  Just doing my job.  Editing isn't for soft-hearted sissies.

            “We’re going to go take a walk down to the beach.”
            “Alright, call me when you want me to come pick you up.  You have your cell?”
            She smiled and patted her baby blue Anna Williams bag.  Satisfied with that answer, he kissed her, squeezed her hand, got in their car and pulled away.
            Susanna arrived in Chatham five hours ago, and Alice was running out of time.  John insisted that Susanna know about her Alzheimer’s before he left for Philadelphia in the morning.  He was anxious to detail for her the rules and regulations surrounding Alice’s medication, her running routine, her cell phone, the Safe Return program, and to give Susanna her neurologist’s and his phone numbers, just in case.  When she played this instructional speech in her head, it sounded very much like the ones she and John had delivered to their teenaged babysitters before leaving their children for weekends away in Maine or Vermont.  She remembered feeling so excited to get away on those weekends, but also nervous about leaving their children behind with someone else to watch them.  Anxiously pulled in opposite directions.  Now she needed to be watched.  This is how I want you to look after Alice while I’m out.  She imagined that he might’ve actually composed a list that he planned to magnetize to the refrigerator.  He was nervous about leaving her behind.  Was he also excited to get away?  Anxiously pulled in opposite directions.
            She asked him if he would let her tell Susanna herself, and she promised that she would, but they’d just finished eating dinner at the Squire, and she hadn’t yet mustered up the courage to reveal her sad secret to her dearest friend.  She felt completely clear-headed today.  She’d come to recognize the difference between days that would be fraught with difficulties finding memories and words and bathrooms and days that her Alzheimer’s would lay silent and not interfere.  On those quiescent days, she was her normal self, the self she understood and had confidence in.  On those days, she could almost convince herself that Dr. Davis and the genetic screening had been wrong, or that the last six months had been a horrible dream.  Only a nightmare, the monster under her bed and clawing at her covers not real.  She was having one of those days today, and she wanted to hold on to being normal with Susanna for as long as possible.
            They walked down Main Street without talking.  The line of luxury cars and SUVs parked along the curb, outfitted with bike racks and kayaks bungeed on roofs, crammed with baby strollers, beach chairs and umbrellas, and sporting license plates from Connecticut, New York and New Jersey in addition to Massachusetts was an indisputable indication that the summer season was officially in full swing.  Families walked along the sidewalk without regard for lanes of pedestrian traffic, unhurried and without specific destinations, strolling, stopping, backtracking and window-shopping.  Like they had all the time in the world.
            An easy, ten-minute stroll removed them completely from the bustling evening of downtown, early-July Chatham.  As it always did, the spectacular view of Lighthouse Beach from the road filled her with awe and gratitude.  They walked the thirty steps down to the sand.  A modest row of sandals and flip-flops were waiting at the bottom where they’d been kicked off earlier in the day.  It was nearing sunset, and there weren’t many people left on the beach.  The sign in front of them read:

            Warning: Strong Current.  Surf subject to unexpected life-threatening waves and currents.  No lifeguard.  Hazardous area for:  Swimming and wading, diving and water skiing, sailboards and small boats, rafts and canoes.
            Aside from sand, water and sky, Lighthouse Beach shared little or nothing else in common with Hardings.  At Hardings earlier that day, the water was pleasant and welcoming, and Nantucket Island could be seen in the distance.  At Lighthouse Beach on the same day, the water was choppy and wild, and Alice knew from brief experience and reputation that is was always painfully cold.  And, there was nothing to see in the distance but more ocean, nothing else between here and Europe.  It was vast, impersonal, a little scary.
            The breaking waves were relentless, powerful and loud, rumbling and churning, pounding at its shore.  If it weren’t for the colossal seawall constructed at the edges of the properties of the million-dollar homes along Shore Drive, the ocean would’ve taken each house in, devouring them all without sympathy or apology.  Alzheimer’s was like this ocean at Lighthouse Beach, unstoppable, ferocious, destructive.  Only, there were no seawalls in her brain to protect her memories and thoughts from the onslaught.
            Susanna hadn’t yet mentioned Greg.  She probably wanted him to be here, but Alice requested in an email, without explanation or excuse, that she come to Chatham alone.  Susanna replied with the word “fine”.  It was equally vague without knowing the tone, but Alice guessed she was pissed.  But, if she’d hinted that there was something important that she needed to tell her, Susanna would’ve dragged it out of her that day, over the phone, and Alice didn’t want to tell her like that.  She wanted to tell her friend face-to-face, and she wanted to spend the week alone with her, without John and without Greg.  It’s not that she didn’t want to meet Greg, but she didn’t want the week made superficial with good manners and appropriate guest considerations and entertaining.  Even if they had another opportunity to spend a week together in the near future, this disease only got worse.  She may not understand what her friend meant to her in the future.  It was time to be a little selfish.
            “I know you probably wanted to bring Greg.”
            “I absolutely wanted to bring Greg.”
            Well, now she knew.  She was pissed.
            “I know.”
            “No, you don’t know.  If he were my husband, you wouldn’t even think of not inviting him.  I’d never tell you not to bring John or the kids.  I accept your life and everything and everyone in it, but you don’t accept mine.”
            “I do, Suz.  This isn’t about him.”
            “Then what, what is it about?”
            “I have something to tell you, and it really can’t wait, and I couldn’t imagine combining what I have to tell you and the week I want to have with you with meeting Greg.”
            “Well?  What is it?”
            Here it was, the moment she had to cross over.  No more normal.
            “I have Alzheimer’s Disease.”
            She saw Susanna’s defensive anger leave her muscles and posture and drift away.  She saw the fight in her pickle green eyes dissolve into fearful questioning.  She waited a long time for Susanna to speak the questions her eyes asked.  But they just stayed there.
            “I was diagnosed in January, we told the kids over Easter.  I couldn’t tell you over the phone, I have a really hard time on the phone now.  And I couldn’t email this.”
            The questions in Susanna’s eyes, now blurry with tears, begged for some other answer.
            “I’m forgetting things, I’m getting confused and lost, I’m making all sorts of bizarre mistakes.”
            It was news neither of them wanted to hold, but they’d been burdened with this kind of load before, and they were strong enough to carry it together.  Susanna finally spoke.
            “What’s going to happen to you?”
            “It’s Alzheimer’s.  You know what’s going to happen.”
            “But there’s got to be something that can at least stop it from progressing?”
            Alice watched the tide coming in, erasing footprints, demolishing an elaborate sandcastle decorated with shells, filling in a hole dug earlier that day with plastic shovels, ridding the shore of its daily history.  She envied the beautiful homes behind the seawall.
            “No, there’s nothing.”
            “But we’re too young for you to have Alzheimer’s.  It’s just wrong.  It has to be something else.”
            This was, predictably now, everyone’s rebuttal, including her own, what seemed like so very long ago.  It just wasn’t valid.  In fact, the first patient ever diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a woman named Auguste D, was fifty-one when she was first admitted to a hospital in Frankfurt with symptoms of abrupt personality changes and profound memory loss.  She died at the age of fifty-six.
            “No, it’s definitely Alzheimer’s.  You can be this young.  I’m positive for a mutated gene that causes it.”           
            “How long before--?”
            “I don’t know.  They don’t know.  Two years, twenty years.  Hopefully, long enough for me to meet Greg.”
            Susanna smiled, but her eyes didn’t agree.
            “Do the people at Harvard know?”
            “No, but I probably won’t be able to keep it hidden too much longer.”
            “What are you going to do?”
            “About Harvard?”
            “About everything.”
            “I don’t know.  I thought about trying to write one last paper.  But, it would really be so hard for me now.  I could do it, but it wouldn’t be my best work, not even close.  Not what I want to be remembered by.”
            Alice Howland, is best remembered for ‘Molecules to Mind’, a ground-breaking text coauthored with her husband, John.  It was her proudest written achievement, her words and ideas blended with John’s, creating something together that was unique in this universe, informing and influencing the words and ideas of others.  She’d assumed they’d write another.
            “Right now, I’m just living in my life, continuing the best I can at Harvard, trying to contribute for as long as I can and trying to really notice and enjoy all of the details in everything while I still can.  I don’t know what else to do.  What would you do?”
            “I don’t know.  If I could bring myself to leave my bed, probably the same thing.  It’s what we should all be doing, actually.  What are you going to do when you have to leave Harvard?”
            “No idea.  I’ve been terrified to think about it.”
            “How long have you known about this?”
            “For sure, since January.”
            “I can’t believe you’ve been going through all this without me.  I hate living so far away from you.  How’s Johnny handling this?”
            “Really well in some ways and not so well in others.  I don’t think he’s entirely accepted that this is happening.  I think he actually thinks he’s going to come home from this conference with a cure for me.  And there just isn’t one.  I’m worried about what it’ll do to him when he realizes that.  And I’m worried about what this is going to do to him as I get worse.”
            “Have you thought about taking some time off and traveling together?”
            “We’ve both already traveled everywhere.  There’s nowhere that I’m really dying to see.”
            “Still, it might be nice to get away, go somewhere beautiful and relax without a conference or symposium lecture hanging over your heads.”
            It wouldn’t matter where they went, her Alzheimer’s was coming with her.  There was nowhere to run, no vacation from dementia.
            “True, but that’s what this place is for us.  I love it here.  And being here on the Cape, the kids can come and visit.”
            “How are the kids?”
            She was trying to say that Anna was positive for the same mutation, but her voice became unexpectedly flooded with emotion, and her breath was involuntarily redirected from the task of speaking to crying.  She hadn’t spoken of Anna’s genetic testing results to anyone other than Anna since Easter.  They were hugging each other now, both crying.  It felt so good.  Susanna’s arms had always been a safe place for her to cry.  It was several minutes before Alice was able to finish her sentence.
            “Anna and Tom underwent the same genetic testing I did.  Anna has what I have.”
            “Oh my God.  What about Tom and Lydia?”
            “Tom’s fine, and Lydia won’t get tested.”
            “Of course.”
            They both laughed a little.
            “Anna’s okay though.  She’s not looking at this like a death sentence. The best thing to come of this, I guess, is that she’d been trying to get pregnant and couldn’t.  So now she’s doing in vitro, and because they know she has the mutation, they can actually test the embryos as well and only implant the ones that are mutation-free.  So we’ve all been focusing on the fact that Anna is going to have a baby that won’t get Alzheimer’s.  It’s truly amazing what they can do.”
            “But what about something truly amazing for you?  There’s got to be something.  What about clinical trials?”
            “I’m in one.  But, I don’t even know if I’m getting the drug or a sugar pill.  I’ve read everything about this disease and everything about this drug.  They may be on the right track with this one, but I don’t think it’s the magic bullet.”
            “So maybe your progression will be really slow.  You caught this really early, and your progression will be slow, and they’ll discover the magic bullet in time for you.”
            “Alice, you’re going to be okay.  You can hold on for the magic bullet and get through this.”
            Susanna had told her that she was going to be okay before.  She’d said it with the same tenderness and conviction that was in her voice now.  Alice believed her whole-heartedly thirty-two years ago, and that magical belief helped move her through the morning of her mother’s and sister’s funeral, their birthdays, holidays, her graduation, her wedding day.  And Susanna had been right.  Eventually, Alice was okay.  But Alice didn’t believe her now.  She wished that she did.
            “And you’re too smart anyway.  You can afford to lose a few brain cells.  This is just God’s way of showing you what it’s like to be the rest of us.”
            They both smiled.  The sun, low and impossibly big in the pink and blue sky, was readying to plunge into the Altantic.  This wild and dangerous ocean before her was as beautiful as anything she’d ever seen.  She wondered if Auguste D had ever seen something this beautiful before being admitted to that asylum in Frankfurt.
            “What should we do?” asked Susanna.
            “About my Alzheimer’s?”
            “No, together, tonight, right now.”
            “Want me to call John to come get us?”
            “No, not yet.  Let’s go enjoy the view and a big fat glass of wine from the Chatham Bars Inn.”
            “Perfect.  Oh, you’ll love this.  The antioxidants in red wine and dark chocolate are thought to be as effective at treating this as any drug.”
            “Alright then, my love, let’s go get you some medicine.”


  1. Hello Lisa,

    Thanks for sharing your "deleted scene". Was a powerful read.

    Know that my wife never really was able to share her disease with too many people. Part was she really did not want to admit that she had it or would decline like she had seen her sister and Mother before her.

    Looking back I wish that I could have had more honest conversations about the disease, her fears and worries. But as her husband, lover, spouse I think she did not want to add any burden to me.

    You book really has helped give a perspective to others about Alzheimer's and it's impact on younger people who suffer from the disease.

    Thanks, Keep up the great work!!

    Mark Donham

    PS: I really enjoyed Left Neglected as well!!

  2. Thanks, Lisa, for sharing this "little darling"'s been awhile since I read Left Neglected, so this was an excellent reminder to read it again. Precious words!

    I'm a recently published author - It's an Ill Wind, Indeed..., a memoir and I realize now that there are some "little darlings" that I could probably have omitted. Maybe you've given me the courage for the next one. If you could eliminate this jam-packed section without angst...

    Joan Callaway

  3. I have a clipping gallery file for scenes I've cut. It's easier that way, to part with gems that are hard to let go of. Funny thing though - I've never felt the need to retrieve a single gem.

  4. Thank you for posting this "deleted scene." It's been quite a while since I read Still Alice, so this was a treat to revisit her story. I kept telling myself it's time to reread both of your books, but I have so many unread books calling for my attention, that I rarely ever get around to reading a book a second time. Might be a good reason to listen to yours on audio.

    I am so looking forward to your next novel!