The lens of dementia

January 17, 2012

The movie The Iron Lady--about Margaret Thatcher, prime
minister of Britain from 1979 to 1990--is worth
watching for a number of reasons. One is the opportunity to refresh our
minds about a major figure of recent history and her influence upon
those times. Another is to watch Meryl Streep’s performance in the role. She
loses herself behind a helmet of hair, false teeth, and piles of makeup
to become--brilliantly--Mrs. Thatcher.

Yet another reason — and for me the most compelling one, though it is
quite controversial — is the decision to tell the story from the
perspective of Mrs. Thatcher’s current dementia.

movie opens with a frail, old woman tottering away from a grocery
store. In the next scenes, we see Mrs. Thatcher breakfasting with her
husband Denis, then telling him what he’ll wear for the day. Soon we
realize that Denis Thatcher, in fact, is dead, and that his frequent
“presence” is a function of his wife’s current confusion.

Some of her memories are still quite vivid, however, and so we see
her life through a series of flashbacks: her rise to power, her
challenges and successes, her opinions. The Falklands War and subsequent
economic upturn grant her an interval of acclaim, but for the most
part, she is an unpopular prime minister. She retains the leadership for
about 11 years, then is ousted by her own party.

The Margaret Thatcher we see in these flashbacks is unbending,
driven, and difficult to like, though admirable for the strength of her
convictions, her tenacity, and the barriers she broke. She seems to be
constantly directing, lecturing, or hectoring those around her, who are
usually men.

But all this through the lens of dementia – what effect does that
have on the life of the woman, on how we perceive her story? Does her
condition in old age become what this movie is about, and if so, what
story is it telling us? Is it a story of comeuppance – ah, how the mighty are fallen!
– that she who was so powerful, so seemingly uncaring at times, is now
reduced? Or, is it a story of profound humanity that arouses our

The point about dementia is that capacity for self-reflection, which
might yet alter or heal aspects of the past, is drastically reduced. In
many ways, Mrs. Thatcher still acts as she did in her earlier life,
seeking to order and control. Those around a person with dementia are
left to react, to “put up.” Well, such was the case in her earlier life
as well. This makes me wonder whether the dementia, as a narrative
device here, acts as a kind of tragic mirror to all the ways in which
she was always “unaware.”

At the same time, the elderly Mrs. Thatcher in the movie returns
repeatedly to memories of her husband Denis, and their interactions,
also of happy family times at the beach. She asks the Denis Thatcher she
imagines being present, “Were you happy, Denis? Tell me the truth.” Is
there, in the weight of these memories, a sort of reflection, after all,
that either re-orders priorities, or perhaps reveals them more clearly
than the public persona did?

Michael White, at The Guardian, who “knew” Margaret Thatcher, calls
Streep’s interpretation “remarkable and sensitive” but dislikes its
“cruel portrait of old age, loneliness and decay. “ Max Pemberton at The Telegraph was “sickened,” he says,
by the “cruel, thoughtless voyeurism,” and is incensed that the film
was made before Mrs. Thatcher’s death. Although he has “direct
experience of the reality of dementia for the sufferer and their
family,” and considers the movie “faultless in its depiction of
dementia,” he believes it “chillingly insensitive.”

I too have direct experience of the reality of dementia. Unlike Mr.
Pemberton, I don’t think respect of Mrs. Thatcher requires us to turn
away from the face of her dementia, while freely viewing her face as she
gives orders about miners on strike or the Falklands War. Since the
movie, I’m mulling the life of this woman, wondering about the parts and
how they add up, what they mean. I find resonance here with experiences
of dementia in my family. I came away from the story feeling newly
attentive, newly full of questions, both discouraged and encouraged by
what remains in the lives of dementia sufferers and how that illumines,
contradicts, undoes, or re-forms the rest of their history.

Have you seen The Iron Lady? What did you think of it?

Originally posted at Borrowing Bones