De­men­tia suf­fer­ers’ spouses lay­ing bare their lives should be stopped

Irish Examiner - - Opinion - Terry Prone

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.

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