Political drama, political drama, political drama, Alzheimer’s.
As I binge-watched “The West Wing” this past summer, I was jarred by the suddenness of season 4’s “The Long Goodbye.” Although mentions of Press Secretary C.J. Cregg’s father’s deteriorating mental state had been mentioned in several episodes, it’s the audience’s first and last introduction to Tal Cregg (Donald Moffat). And it’s a doozy.
Both of my grandmothers have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s for several years now. Neither has progressed to the point that they don’t recognize me, and they can both carry a conversation in some limited capacity. As is typical for Alzheimer’s patients, their memories of the past are the clearest. There are days that my grandmother can barely string together a sentence, but if you sing “Bring Back My Bonnie,” she’ll sing along perfectly with a smile on her face.
However, for the sake of convenience and plot progression in “West Wing,” Tal switches between early- and late-stage symptoms of Alzheimer’s in a matter of seconds. His short-term memory abilities change significantly whenever necessary for the drama’s unfolding.
Although it’s true that people can have “good days” and “bad days,” within three and a half minutes, Tal completely shifts gears: He recalls that C.J. went behind his back to speak to his separated wife earlier in the day, claims that he has not seen any Alzheimer’s symptoms, and independently and knowledgeably researches a drug. And yet, he then confuses his daughter for his wife, yells at her for nagging him, fails to recognize her and screams in a panic, believes that his mother is still alive and that he spoke to her that morning, and then re-remembers who his daughter is and realizes that he’s done something crazy.
I have seen one of my grandmothers do most of these things, but they were spread out over the course of years, not minutes. She hasn’t yelled in the face of a family member out of fear or explicitly mistaken one relative for another—the degree of confusion necessitating that is far beyond Tal’s apparent progression.
The challenge is, however, that the short scene contains nuggets of truth. There won’t be such quick changes, but an inappropriate comment may slip out, soon followed by a hand over the mouth and a murmured, “I can’t believe I said that.” Sure, there is a wide range of how Alzheimer’s presents itself, but it can’t look like this.
After it is revealed that Tal’s third wife, Molly (Verna Bloom), has left her husband based on her inability to cope with his decline, we see Molly get confronted by C.J. Despite the over-the-top melodrama of the scene, which involves uninteresting backstory and vague accusations that fail to achieve their intended high stakes, the audience suddenly arrives at a raw moment. C.J. yells, “He needs you,” to which Molly responds, “I need him,” directly addressing how she feels abandoned as her husband deteriorates further and further.
With those three simple words, she explains the pain of watching someone with Alzheimer’s slowly lose a battle against their own mind. Tal’s frustration with his own mental state—or, as he puts it, “the Demolition Derby going on in [his] brain”—is something that I’ve seen both my grandmothers express in different ways throughout the creeping progression of this illness.
This is an example of what fictional work can do: promote awareness about how Alzheimer’s can affect those that have it and their loved ones. However, Tal doesn’t appear for the rest of the series, suggesting that C.J.’s short visit has set up a permanently safe and lasting situation for the remaining years of his life.
Coming to terms with a disease that is so difficult to understand is maddening for anyone that even remotely interacts with the disease. Books like “Still Alice” by Lisa Genova, a novel from the perspective of a professor with early-onset Alzheimer’s, are lauded as accurate portrayals of the disease. But there are many other examples demonstrating misrepresentations of Alzheimer’s and dementia in general, such as “The Notebook”, in which Allie is able to communicate clearly and effectively but is simply unable to recognize anyone, matches the symptoms of movie-style amnesia more than her supposed dementia.
Given “The West Wing” writers’ laziness throughout the episode, it is unsurprising to see the insubstantial portrayal of Alzheimer’s. Furthermore, the public’s misunderstanding of the disease makes it easier for C.J.’s character, who is usually assertive among the all-male senior staff of the White House, to become suddenly unable to stand up to her father and insist on better care for him. Despite seeing that he is unable to stir a custard, she allows him to drive her down a crowded street and only forces him to change seats with her after they nearly get in an accident.
Some of Tal’s little tics are similar to those that one of my grandmothers once showed. Tal will smoke cigarette after cigarette simply because he forgets that he’s just finished one, just as my grandmother would accidentally polish off an entire half-gallon of ice cream in a night because she didn’t remember that she’d already eaten a bowl.
Many would consider this portrayal close enough, or within the realm of reason considering the unpredictable nature of the disease. Yet, using Alzheimer’s merely as a plot device minimizes the unending challenges that the disease presents. The episode is “resolved” when Molly returns to live with Tal, and C.J. walks away as they stand in the background with their arms around each other. While watching shows that portray elderly patients with various forms of forgetfulness may invite critical examination of the portrayal’s accuracy, they can also serve to perpetuate a rudimentary and inaccurate understanding of old age.