Success, meticulous planning, and an eye for detail have in no way prepared Vivienne for the news inside that little white envelope. Even with the aid of a creation myth of her own imagination and her insomnia-driven baking, apprehension takes hold as she grapples with the frightening thought of her mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. A National New Play Network (NNPN) Rolling World Premiere, Blackberry Winter is a charming and witty new work.
“You certainly owe it to yourself to experience at least one [Steve] Yockey show in your lifetime.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
*member of Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States
ºmember of United Scenic Artists, Local USA 829
|Thursday, March 3|
|“Meet and Greet” the cast, designers, crew and New Rep Staff, then hear a read-through or sing-through of the play.|
|Wednesday, March 23 at 6:30pm|
|Observe 30 minutes of the company’s first day rehearsing on the Charles Mosesian Theater stage, followed by a conversation with New Rep artistic staff.|
Inside the Play
|Wednesday, April 6 at 6:30pm|
|Learn more about the elements that bring the play off the page and to life on stage.|
|Meet the Playwright: Steve Yockey||Sunday, March 27 following the 4pm matinee|
|Theatre artists, area academics, and experts explore and discuss ideas related to the play and how they impact our world.|
|Aging with Alzheimer’s: The Search for a Cure||Thursday, March 31 following 7:30pm performance|
|A discussion with Dr. Reisa Sperling, MD, from Brigham and Women’s Hospital Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment and director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary|
|Fading Memories: The Loss of Self and Personal Identity||Sunday, April 3 following the 2pm matinee|
|Theatre artists, area academics, and experts explore and discuss ideas related to the play and how they impact our world.
Click here to learn about the symposium panelists!
Click here to learn about more special events related to the play made possible through our partnership with Mass Humanities.
Notes by Lea Phillips, edited by Ruth Spack
Illness as Metaphor
Throughout history, human beings have always found ways to rationalize the diseases that plague their lives. The ancient Greeks thought Nosoi, the spirits that escaped Pandora’s Box, caused sickness under Zeus’s command. In Islamic tradition, schizophrenia and epilepsy were sometimes attributed to creatures made of smoke-less fire—Jinn, or Genies—who were thought to have the ability to possess humans. In the Middle Ages, some thought The Black Death was God’s punishment for people’s sinful ways, while others thought it was caused by an imbalance of humors. Even after the scientific revolution, there was a hesitancy to integrate contemporary research into mainstream beliefs. Unlike previous myths that blamed disease on external forces, new conceptions blamed the sufferers for their afflictions. For example, tuberculosis, one of history’s deadliest diseases, was attributed more to the invalid’s personality than the actual infection. As Susan Sontag explains in Illness as Metaphor (1978), TB was believed to come from “too much passion, afflicting the reckless and sensual.” The realities of the disease were obfuscated by popular mythology that depicted TB patients as sensitive romantics who had lost the will to live.
Each disease has its own symbolic baggage, shaped by societal influences. While TB was attributed to excessive passion, cancer was often attributed to repressed emotions—a result of the modern obsession with psychoanalysis. According to Sontag, many people believed cancer was a disease of “insufficient passion, afflicting those who are sexually repressed, inhibited, unspontaneous, incapable of expressing anger.” This idea posited cancer as a punishment for not acting on one’s desires and implied the patient’s symptoms could subside with will power.
Even the way people speak about disease can transform it from an infection or tumor to an evil force to be reckoned with. Cancer imagery has historically been used as a rhetorical device to vilify an ideology or group. Leon Trotsky called Stalinism the cancer of Marxism. Hitler considered Jews to be the cancer of Germany. White House counsel John Dean warned President Richard Nixon, “We have a cancer within, close to the Presidency, that’s growing.” Recently, Al Arabiya News published an article titled “The Cancer That Is the ISIS.” Such comparisons position cancer as the embodiment of all that is wrong in the world. The medical details of the disease are shrouded in a dark mystique, which is harmful to the sick. Susan Sontag argues that “as long as a particular disease is treated as an evil, invincible predator, not just a disease, most people with cancer will be demoralized.” They must deal not only with the actual symptoms but also with the taboos the rhetoric creates.
Alzheimer’s and Its Stigmas
More than five million people in the United States are living with Alzheimer’s disease, a form of dementia, five percent of whom are under age sixty-five. It is estimated that by 2024, the number will increase by forty percent. Two-thirds of Alzheimer’s victims are women. First-degree relatives have increased risk for developing the disease, which means that familial caregivers not only have to help their relatives navigate their illness but must also deal with the fear of their own susceptibility. While the growing rate of Alzheimer’s could be attributed to increased longevity, modern lifestyle choices are often blamed. Yet scientific studies have failed to confirm any role for suspected culprits—aluminum, aspartame, flu shots, silver dental fillings—in causing the disease.
The word dementia derives from the Latin demens, dement, which means “out of one’s mind,” a term that suggests madness or derangement and which speaks volumes about the negative cultural attitudes toward the condition. Wittingly or unwittingly, J.K. Rowling created a detrimental mythology surrounding dementia in the Harry Potter universe, where dark foul creatures called “dementors” suck the life out of wizards, leaving their victims in a permanent vegetative state. First-hand testimonies reveal the devastating effects of stigmatization. Many people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s say their condition is perceived as a shortcoming rather than an illness. They report feeling ostracized by others, as if Alzheimer’s were infectious. Unfortunately, until a treatment is discovered to cure or delay the progression of Alzheimer’s, myths surrounding it are likely to persist.
Persistence of Myth and Metaphor
Every illness that has struck humanity has been accompanied by myths and metaphors in search of someone or something to blame. Susan Sontag remarks, “it seems as though societies need to have one illness which becomes identified with evil and attaches blame to its victims.” As researchers learn more about individual diseases, the myths associated with them become less potent. Yet, despite medical advances, we cling to metaphor, perhaps because knowing the minute details of a disease’s fatal attack does not provide comfort. The idea that we have no control over our body’s functions is a direct affront to the sense of autonomy we carry throughout our lives. Sontag suggests the myths can provide a sense of control. But perhaps these stories surrounding disease are created not by the sick but by the bystanders and caretakers who, through connection with the ill, are reminded of their own mortality. Myths are born out of the need to find solace and make sense of the universe. They reflect our deepest fears about the fragility of existence. By avoiding the forces or behaviors that cause disease, the healthy believe, they will be safe.
Batsch, Nicole L., and Mary S. Mittelman, eds. “World Alzheimer Report 2012: Overcoming the Stigma of Dementia.” Alzheimer’s Disease International (2012). Web. 24 Apr. 2015.
Berchtold NC, Cotman CW. “Evolution in the conceptualization of Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease: Greco-Roman period to the 1960s.” Neurobiol Aging. 1998;19(3):173–189.
Blumberg, Antonia. “Fourteen Percent Of Americans Believe AIDS Might Be God’s Punishment: Survey.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 28 Feb. 2014. Web. 11 May 2015.
Clendinnen, Inga. “Storytelling And History.” Quarterly Essay 23 (2006): 38-47. Academic Search Premier. Web. 11 May 2015.
Conrad, Peter. “The Social Construction Of Illness: Key Insights And Policy Implications.” vol. 51 (2010), p. S67-S79.Web. 24 Apr. 2015.
“Demented.” Merriam-Webster. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.
Gholipour, Bahar. “Supernatural ‘Jinn’ Seen as Cause of Mental Illness Among Muslims.” Live Science. 15 Aug. 2014. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.
“History of AIDS Up to 1986.” ADVERT. Web. 11 May 2015.
Ibeji, Mike. “Black Death: The Disease.” BBC. 17 Feb. 2011. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.
Johnston, Sarah Iles. Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2004. Print.
Khalifa, Najat, and Tim Hardie. “Possession and Jinn.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 98.8 (2005): 351–353. Print.
“Memory Loss Myths & Facts.” Alzheimer’s Association. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.
Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor; and, AIDS and Its Metaphors. New York: Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989. Print.
Fan Pen, Chen. “Shadow Theaters Of The World.” Web. 27 Feb. 2015.
“2015 Alzheimers Disease Facts and Figures.” Alz.org. Alzheimer’s Association. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.