Why Marcia Gay Harden refused to surrender to the power of Alzheimer's
Marcia Gay Harden has won an Oscar and a Tony, but this year the actress is showcasing her bona fides as a writer.
On Tuesday, Harden (Pollack, Code Black) published Seasons of My Mother, a lyrical memoir recounting her intimate, profound relationship with her mother. The book is assembled non-chronologically, and follows their adventures around the world: as they grow closer, learn from one another, and develop a dynamic that goes from parent-child to close friends. Harden writes with grit and insight, painting an authentic portrait of their dynamic. And she doesn’t shy away from the most painful element of the story, either: the fact that her mother was eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Seasons is framed around flower-arranging and the art of Ikebana, a choice that builds in literary depth as the book rolls along. It’s also an activity that binds Harden and her mother, and that was always there, if only in the background, for their relationship’s most pivotal moments.
Just before Seasons‘ publication, Harden spoke to EW about the book’s genesis and evolution, her desire to tackle her mother’s diagnosis unflinchingly, and why the writing process has changed her. Read on below, and purchase your copy here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The decision to write this memoir, I imagine, was not made overnight. What made you decide to write this?
MARCIA GAY HARDEN: It was initially going to be a different project. In the beginning, I talk about how mom and I — how she wanted to do a traveling flower show, going into people’s gardens and arranging things as a sort of HGTV-type show. We were going to do a calendar book of flowers — “What you arrange in January; what you arrange in February” — to market along with the show. Life got in the way. I didn’t pick up the idea again until maybe six or seven years later, at which point mom had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The process of picking up that book already would not have the collaboration that we would’ve had previously.
A while later, my neighbor, this old writer named Alvin Sargent [Paper Moon, Ordinary People], had just lost his wife. He’d just lost his wife and I was just going through a divorce, so he recognized me on the street and we became fast and furious friends. He said to me, “You should write it” after I told him about the book. I said I was; he told me to show him. I showed him two sentences, which were of the January chapter — in January, my mother always liked to arrange with a clean mind — and he said … “So you’re a writer.”
That was, for me, a huge affirmation. I’m not a writer; I didn’t study it in school. But I’m an actor. I’m a storyteller. So I started writing, still thinking I was doing a how-to book, and then some agents saw it and said, “Really, what’s happening here is the narrative is so important. Can you keep working with the narrative?” It was very scary to me, because I really hadn’t intended to write a book about my mother. I’d intended that we would do a book together about flowers. [Laughs] But the narrative started coming; it turned into a memoir, and it would come chapter by chapter. I went to the past, the present, and would have no regard for time. I just told the stories as they came. It was a great experience, but not easy — very, very personal.
The flowers make for such a powerful motif for the story you’re telling. As you were told to push in terms of the narrative, how did you think about the flowers and Ikebana, narratively? How they informed the story?
I felt like I still had to follow that [calendar] structure. If you look closely at each chapter … I tried to find a memory from each. I simply didn’t place it chronologically; I just placed it whenever, and then I would let the chapter go wherever it went. In February, I’d say on Valentine’s Day, dad always gave mom beautiful red roses — breaking from the tradition of yellow. For Christmas, I went back to the motif of the reef, and how Forsythia was so important. I tried to think of a flower that would be exemplary for each month, and then find a memory — a story — around that. Sometimes, like when my mom came to visit for me giving birth to [my daughter] Eulala, it wasn’t a specific flower. It was the fact that she was the one to teach Ikebana, and then all the little lessons she taught me in the grocery store while we were getting flowers.
I tried to weave what flower would be appropriate for a certain month, and then weave a memory with that. Then that opened doors: it was like a starting point for each chapter.
Did approaching your relationship with your mother in this way cause you to remember things differently? Did it change or flesh out your memories?
Yeah, it did. Memories are so ephemeral on some level. In how I write this book, I have mom flying outside of airplanes and embracing the moon and doing things that aren’t necessarily literal … Sometimes I’d go back and look at pictures and would go, “Oh, that’s what this looked like,” and would be able to write about it … It actually made my memories stronger. I did research as well to make sure my memory was based in some fact. Sometimes I got things wrong. Even now I look back and I go, “You know what, actually our plane touched down in Hawaii before we went on to Japan.” But it doesn’t matter. It’s the arc of a journey that my mom was taking. If the plane touched down and then back up, who cares? Not that facts are inconvenient — facts are important — but it’s not a biography. It’s a memoir.
Can you describe the feeling of revisiting these memories, given the context of your mother’s Alzheimer’s?
When I first started this, I was so angry that my mother had lost the ability to do all of the things that she loved to do. I was so angry that she was sitting in a wheelchair, starting to forget. That’s what made me first say, I don’t want this to be what we remember her for — Alzheimer’s. I just had that feeling of: I can’t surrender to the power of this disease to define a person. That’s what made me start the book. The painful memory is much what drove me, to repurpose that pain, and it’s much what drove me to do something about it. The fact of her sitting not blankly, but going in and out — we were still discovering what Alzheimer’s was. That’s what drove me to the book.
There’s one chapter where you recount, in painfully routine detail, your mother not being able to remember which dress to wear, repeatedly putting on the wrong clothing and getting more and more confused.
It’s a very painful memory. And what else would it be? You know something’s wrong, and if everything the doctors are saying is true about it, there’s not much we can do about it … My mom is now in a wheelchair, and who knows why? Did her body forget how to walk? I don’t know exactly why she’s in a wheelchair. She’s still the same beautiful person. But at that time, when she was first beginning to show symptoms, each one was like a lower note in a musical scale. It’s scary. That’s what I remember that dress moment as.
Gathering with my family, my brothers and sisters, and trying to understand what was going — what our response would be — were all painful memories to revisit. And there are so many families going through the same thing. It doesn’t just affect the patient; it affects huge communities of people: the families, the caregivers. In terms of writing about it, most of the book is not about Alzheimer’s — it’s about a mother-daughter relationship, us growing and traveling together and learning to see each other as people, rather than the labels of “mother” and “daughter.” That’s the beauty of her. Our mothers give us these life lessons in ways that we don’t even recognize in the moment that they’re being given … But of course Alzheimer’s is there — I tell you in the beginning [of the book], that’s what’s going to happen. You know we’re going there. By knowing it’s happening in the beginning, it makes the loss of her and her gifts more tangible.
Did writing this change you? Make you look back on things differently? Even now, since you’ve finished and are now talking about it.
It’s a strange feeling, releasing babies into the world, isn’t it — things that you cherish? It’s constantly changing me. What I’m telling myself is to hold onto it — to hold onto the fact of it … What’s changing in me is to help be a voice for the Alzheimer’s world, and that’s really what the mission is: raise awareness and help find a cure for this heinous disease. That’s the goal.
And then on this other level, I have people in my social media saying, like, “I just took an Ikebana class — thank you so much for introducing this to me!” A few of my friends who have read it are now giving me the feedback that they understand Ikebana in a whole new light, and they’re interested in this craft. I think that would make my mother so incredibly proud, as a result of what’s happened with the book. So for me, it’s a little scary. It’s always a little scary releasing a baby and then talking about it. I’m being asked, “What is it? What is this book?” I can’t go, “It’s a mystery thriller!” [Laughs] This is a mother-daughter journey. That’s the best way I can put it.