Lessons Learned from "Flowers for Algernon"

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On the train home from Seattle, I read Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. The novel is written as a series of journal entries written by Charlie, a mentally challenged man who has been selected to participate in a clinical trial of a surgical procedure designed to double or triple his IQ. Impatient scientists choose him as the first human subject after only one experimental mouse, Algernon, exhibits signs of increased intelligence. Indeed, the surgery is successful, and we experience Charlie's increasing intellectual brilliance: he develops a photographic memory, learns ten languages, quickly becomes an expert in several different unrelated fields, and so on. However, we also watch, as Charlie becomes more isolated, not only because nobody can follow him intellectually but also because—in his emotional naïveté—he doesn't recognize how he alienates others with his aloofness and lack of empathy.

But then Charlie notices that Algernon has begun to regress and is soon having trouble with the simplest mazes. Charlie, of course, recognizes his likely future: he will lose his newly acquired IQ and may even lose more than he had originally gained. He returns to the experimental lab and works feverishly, not to change the course of his own disease, but to discover the metabolic pathways that doomed the surgical experiment from the beginning.

Meanwhile, he chronicles his own decline. Knowing what's coming, he has to watch himself deteriorate. Sound familiar?

It's a good read, but I found two lessons particularly important. Charlie's intellectual descent doesn't seem to bother him as much as one might expect. He has succeeded in finding the medical reason behind his decline and feels satisfied with his life. Second, as he loses his intellectual brilliance, he opens up emotionally, and old, withered friendships become rich again—perhaps richer than before.

In this brief summary, the novel sounds Pollyannaish. It isn't. It is, however, hopeful. Regardless of what too many of us in the culture believe, intellectual intelligence is not the be-all-and-end-all of life. There are, of course, intellectual geniuses who are also empathic and compassionate, so the issue is not intelligence per se. But there is something in his declining intelligence that allows a richer emotional life.

This rings true for me. I can't really explain it, but at least I am finding that the increasing emotional openness and deeper friendships more than match what I'm losing cognitively.

As I've written before, there are caveats. First, I'm only mildly cognitively impaired, and I may be watching through rose-colored lenses. In a sense, I have the best of both worlds: increasing emotional intelligence and still persistent intellectual intelligence. Secondly, Flowers for Algernon, like Still Alice, is a novel, a story, by a cognitively intact author who can only imagine the inner life of a mentally challenged person. Third, the story describes little about the suffering of others close to him and nothing about the suffering of caregivers.

Nevertheless, while it may or may not be an accurate depiction of intellectual decline, I found it deeply meaningful. I will eventually become profoundly impaired myself and will certainly die, but the journey does not, apparently, have to be the culturally-expected suffering.

Editor's note: David's journey with Mild Cognitive Impairment was chronicled in "Fade to Blank: Life Inside Alzheimer's," an in-depth look at the real lives of families impacted by the Alzheimer's epidemic. His story continues on his personal blog on AgingCare.com.

An author and former physician, Dr. David Hilfiker was diagnosed in 2012 with a progressive mild cognitive impairment. His doctor thought it was Alzheimer's but additional testing proved this initial diagnosis to be wrong. Now David must learn how to come to terms with the reality of worsening cognitive issues that appear to have no cause.

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