Dementia sufferers’ spouses laying bare their lives should be stopped
T“It’s doubtful in the extreme that Iris Murdoch would not be grievously offended by her husband’s vomiting of their shared truth
he American scandal sheet, The National Enquirer, last week contacted the richest man in the world to say they had him by the short and curlies and planned to publish a story about his marital infidelity within 48 hours. Jeff Bezos, the man in question, made a pre-emptive strike by issuing a press release to all media. Which didn’t stop the Enquirer running eleven pages, including pictures of the other woman involved. If the publication does what it usually does, the next few issues will have further stinker details of Amazon Man’s bad behaviour.
That will be tough on him, but this man chose to use his private plane to lash around the US for extra-marital “trysts”. So maybe we could contain our natural sympathy. In addition, the working lives of some Amazon employees could be greatly improved if more exposes appeared about the way his warehouses run, which seems to be a version of indentured servitude in horrific conditions, monitored electronically every minute of every day. Then there’s the fact that he has a lot of money to mop his tears, or sue anybody who goes too far. He’s in the whole of his brolic health and probably has nearly as many years ahead of him as behind him, to improve his public image by improving how he does his business, financial and marital.
That’s not the case with a group of individuals being exposed in media increasingly in recent days. Those individuals are the demented. The sufferers from Alzheimer’s disease or other mentally-disabling illnesses. The people exposing them to coverage, or in some cases, actually crafting the coverage itself, are their partners, wives, husbands, spouses.
It started with John Bayley, the literary critic who married a woman from Phibsboro who became a critically acclaimed novelist, Iris Murdoch. Murdoch’s sexual history before marriage was vivid. A N Wilson wrote that she “had clearly been one of those delightful young women... who was prepared to go to bed with almost anyone”. This indiscriminate generosity seems to have continued after the marriage. But then, the husband in this case once described sex as “inescapably ridiculous” and also chose to watch some of his wife’s intimate excursions.
Iris Murdoch’s genius wilted at a certain stage. Post-factum analysis establishes a gradual but irrevocable loss of vocabulary, which meant that, although she continued to write, her later work was necessarily thin. Medical examination of the writer established that she had some form of dementia which was not amenable to treatment and she was left in Bayley’s care. This he delivered while busily recording the day to day erosion of her personality, communicate and live a normal adult life. Before she died, he published what he was witnessing as a memoir, which became a massive best seller. The book in turn generated a major movie, starring Kate Winslet as the young Murdoch and Dame Judi Dench as the same woman in her old age.
If we go back to Bayley prior to Murdoch’s dementia, we have a professor adored by a small number of students, a sexually ambiguous human given to voyeurism, married to a brilliant, acclaimed, rich, promiscuous, literary figure with an unusual ability to attract sexual partners. It’s not hard to imagine that the husband, in this case, might find it psychologically rewarding to expose his wife in public as a dribbling, incoherent and incontinent parody of what she had been. Not to mention the psychological fillip delivered by media interviewers wondering aloud at Bayley’s virtuous care of his wife during her declining years. Because, let’s be clear, the memoir of Iris Murdoch penned by her spouse and published before she died certainly had a hero. And it sure as hell wasn’t Iris.
But, I hear you say, she couldn’t have known anything about Bayley’s satisfying revenge. She was way too far gone by the time it was published to be hurt or offended by it. You would be right too say that, although it suggests that once someone has been lost to dementia, they might as well be dead and require no societal protection. This would propose that they are rendered inhuman or sub-human by illness and so have lost their entitlement to be treated with decency.
You may also suggest that Mr Bayley did the international reading and movie-going public a service by presenting the totality of Alzheimer’s to them. To which it must be pointed out that some people who have written about spousal dementia, most notably Tony Blair’s mother-in-law, did so with affection and grace, so that, were their partners to suddenly recover enough to read or view what was said, they could not be that offended by the publication of their situation. Former minister for finance Michael Noonan is another exception in this regard. He spoke on TV to Pat Kenny with such love and admiration for his wife Flor that their story became one of infinite sadness rather than a narrative of mortifying diminution. The Bayley memoir wasn’t anything like that. It’s doubtful in the extreme that Iris Murdoch would not be grievously offended by her husband’s vomiting of their shared truth.
What is astonishing is not that one well known figure after another lines up to write or talk about their demented spouse, although, if you think about it at all, that should be astonishing, but that it is presented as something heroic done for the public good. As if the public were being prevented from knowing the full truth about Alzheimer’s and needed someone famous to show courage and tell all. The reality is that a couple of keystrokes will deliver every experience and insight anybody could need, related to dementia and that selling one’s nearest and dearest straight down the Suwannee is not the way to prove your public spiritedness.
It may make you feel better. That’s a real possibility, because living with or visiting a person with dementia has to be painful, and the constant physical reminder of what they once were must be agony. Sharing that pain may lessen it. Writing or talking about it may introduce you to a community of sympathisers or others going through the same miseries, and either could conceivably be useful to you, albeit not to your demented relative.
The question is: do you have the right to lay out the shaming facts of their diminished life for public consumption, no matter what your stated motive for so doing? If we in media digitise the photographs of the children of controversial or newsworthy people on the basis that they should not be seen differently because of who they’re related to, then why do we apply so different a set of rules to the demented elderly? Why, in their case, does marriage seem to transfer ownership of their person and persona to a partner who may, without let or hindrance, set out on a course of action which inevitably will taint how others see them and remember them? Prevention of this outrageous invasion of privacy and trust never figures in pre-nups or living wills. It should.
Sharing the pain may lessen it, but Terry Prone wonders if anybody has the right to lay out a spouse’s diminished life for public consumption.