One of the things I’ve wanted to do for a while is read and review books where one character (or more) is living with a disability or chronic illness. The focus of the book doesn’t have to be the disability or illness. I’m just interested in how realistically the character’s lives are portrayed. We don’t have nearly enough diversity in literature, and I’d like to call attention to books that give us some of that.
I read Flowers for Algernon last week for Banned Books week. I had heard about it over the years, but I was never required to read it. Since I read very little science fiction, I never thought I’d enjoy reading it. Enjoyment isn’t exactly what I got from this book–enlightenment might be more appropriate.
In case you don’t know what the book is about, here is a brief synopsis. Charlie was a mentally challenged young man who wanted nothing more than to be smarter than he was. He volunteered for an experimental surgery that was supposed to increase his intelligence. The surgery had previously only been done on mice, and Algernon the mouse was the result of an earlier operation. When Charlie saw how Algernon navigated a maze with ease, he was convinced that the operation would be successful.
Charlie’s surgery was also a success, but his ever increasing intelligence caused difficulties in his relationships. His “friends” at work found out very quickly that he was no longer a target for their teasing, to which he had always been oblivious. They were so uncomfortable that they complained to the owner of the bakery he had been working at for years. He was let go.
He tried having relationships with women, but his emotional intelligence had not progressed on the scale of his intellect. The teacher who had taught him for years ultimately ended their budding relationship, because he was so far ahead of her intellectually, she could no longer keep up.
He reached a point at which he understood that his improvement was only temporary. He watched Algernon regress until all his progress was gone. Then Charlie himself began that backward slide.
I was heartbroken to see his realization that the people he thought were his “friends” were being cruel to him all along. Increased awareness and understanding brought him nothing but pain. I was almost thankful at the end when he reached a point of being somewhat stable, even though he may not have been even as intelligent as he was when he started.
I asked myself if he would have truly consented to the surgery if he had known what would happen to him afterwards. Did he actually have capacity to consent?
I don’t know if I was supposed to wish that increasing intelligence was a possibility for people with mental challenges, but I finished the book with a feeling of discomfort that his life was seen on the same level as that of a mouse in the eyes of the people performing the experiment.
It was ultimately a book that raised a lot of questions in my head and heart. There aren’t many answers to be found–just more questions.