Michael J. Fox was the star of the Back To The Future films and of American sit-com All In the Family. His memoir starts with the moment he becomes aware of the tremor in his little finger that is the first sign of Young-Onset Parkinson’s Disease, and his book tells the story of his struggles with PD even as it also tells the story of a film-star. Some readers I know could not cope with the Hollywood/TV star aspect of his story. However, the public nature of his career in part explains his struggles with the diagnosis and his efforts to keep it secret. The choice about whether to go public and how long to keep a diagnosis secret is one faced by many people with neurological conditions. For everyone there is a different balance of advantages and disadvantages sharing with an employer their diagnosis – and managing this balance for several people is described in the final chapter. In Fox’s case, his career was very public, and it was understandable that he felt unable to inform the producers and directors about his PD. Some of the most moving parts of the book concern the phase of heavy drinking and anger during this period of secret struggle before Fox accepts his Parkinson’s Disease.
Chapter 1 describes the time in 1990-91 when 29 year-old Fox recognises the scarcely controllable tremor in his little finger, and how he reacted emotionally to the diagnosis that followed. (He only went public about his diagnosis in 1998.) Chapters 2, 3, and 4 are the informative chapters about his childhood and his early career, which my students interested in Parkinson’s Disease found difficult – but if Hollywood autobiographies are not your cup of tea you can miss those. The heart of the book perhaps is Chapter 5 ‘Reality Bites’, in which he desperately searches for alternative diagnoses, obtaining 2nd, 3rd, and 4th expert opinions. As Michael J. Fox rages against his misfortune and the loss of control, he works hard to control his symptoms, showing us how he managed to distract and manipulate his body as he felt the tremor coming on, even while filming. Drink and anger put his marriage to actress Tracy Pollan under huge strain. Even after giving up alcohol, Fox pursues a ‘fear-based agenda’ that drives further divisions between him and Tracy.
In Chapter 6 (‘Year of Wonders’) Fox describes going to a Jungian therapist and voicing his fears, and finding that giving up denial to himself perversely meant regaining some control. His fear to ask the questions that are posed by a long-term neurological condition had caused lack of trust within his family relationships, since these unasked questions became the elephant in the room. Fox also describes telling his 5 year-old son why his hand shakes sometimes, and the arrival of twin daughters.
An operation to insert a deep brain stimulator for tremor is the focus of Chapter 7 (‘Like a Hole in the Head’). The pre-op interviews explaining the operation are given in detail, as though this memoir is already part of the role Fox plays in the final chapter as a public advocate for PD research. In the final chapter 8 (‘unwrapping the Gift’) Fox reports on a changing role as he has retired from his sitcom role and gone public with his diagnosis, and he talks about his Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
This book is recommended reading for any clinician working not only with people with Parkinson’s Disease, but also with young adults newly diagnosed with a long-term neurological condition. It graphically describes some of the critical symptoms of PD from the point of view of the person experiencing them. For example, in Chapter 8 there is an excellent description of what it is like in the ‘on’ and ‘off ‘ phases of PD. Fox describes the moment when the Sinemet medication kicks in and he regains control of normal movement – a moment captured on film in ‘The Battle with my Brain’ documentary described elsewhere on this blog. Perhaps more importantly this memoir portrays and analyses Michael J. Fox’s emotional struggles with the diagnosis and all that comes with that struggle in terms of family and professional relationships, aspects of which will be common to many people receiving a diagnosis of a long-term progressive disease.
Michael J. Fox (2002) Lucky Man: a Memoir, London, Ebury Press
Audiobook is available: https://www.audible.co.uk/pd/Lucky-Man-Audiobook/B004F1RJEU
There are several interviews with Michael J Fox available on-line.
An interview with Charlie Rose is at: https://charlierose.com/videos/19282
Many of his interview clips see him over-medicated, as here: