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Book Review - Lucky Man: A Memoir

Monday May 23, 2016

Michael J. Fox was at the top of his acting career. For his portrayal of Alex Keaton in the television sitcom Family Ties he had won three consecutive Emmies (1986, 1987, 1988) and a Golden Globe (1989). He was already famous for his portrayal of Marty McFly in Back to the Future, the highest-grossing movie of 1985. The millions were rolling in. He had recently (1988) married and he and his lovely wife had had their first child.

Michael J FoxAnd then one morning in November of 1990, while he was in Gainesville, Florida, making a film called Doc Hollywood, he noticed, as he came out of his customary hangover, that his left little finger had a mind of its own: “It was trembling, twitching, auto-animated” (p. 2). Had he slept on that hand in some weird way? Was it a signal that he was drinking too much, an early-warning delirium tremens of some sort? He made a series of fists with his hands and shook them out. The tremor was still there.

We all go through a period of denial when we first see signs that we may have Parkinson’s. It is partly that we don’t know much about this disease, partly that we don’t want to know anything about it. We think we cannot have it: we never handled Agent Orange; we have no Parkinson’s in our family; we are morally upright, for the most part, and have done nothing to deserve this kind of punishment; we are far too young to have this disease; and so on.

With Parkinson’s, however, denial is at best a temporary escape. Whatever was causing the thirty-year-old Michael’s left pinkie to wander around soon was causing other fingers on his left hand also to go their separate ways. His denial lasted about a year. Michael finally agreed to try a low dose of L-dopa. If it helped, then he would know that he had Parkinson’s. It helped. Thirty minutes after he took half a pill his tremor disappeared for almost five hours. “The bad news was obvious: here was yet another confirmation I had Parkinson’s disease. The good news was now I could hide it” (p. 150). And hide it he did. Telling only a few members of his family and a few trusted friends that he had Parkinson’s, he delayed going public with the information until seven years later.

Michael tried to find out why he had the disease. Was he, he wondered, being punished for his storybook rise to wealth and fame as an actor? Was Parkinson’s “the cosmic price I had to pay for my success” (pp. 118–19)? He never found the answer to his “Why me?” Few of us do.

Although the two Parkinson’s events — when he found out about his disease and when he let others find out about it — structure Michael’s memoir, Lucky Man is not predominantly about Parkinson’s. Most of the first half is about Michael’s growing up in Canada, his family, his decision to drop out of high school and move to Hollywood to take a shot at a professional acting career, his uncertain start in acting, his years of poverty and debt, his hard work, and his lucky breaks.

Meanwhile, he tried another kind of medication, alcohol. He describes the time his three-year-old son Sam woke him up out of a mid-day hangover. That event, and his disgusted wife’s question, “Is this what you want?” made him realize that it was not at all what he wanted: “You hear stories of utter financial ruin, horrendous car wrecks, injury, and death, prison sentences, wrecked marriages, degradation, and humiliation far beyond anything I’d ever experienced. But as long as I continued to drink, any one of those fates could have been mine” (p. 160). He finally gave up drinking: “I couldn’t do anything about P.D., but alcohol was different: here at least I had a choice, and that day I made it. Helping me to make that choice was the first thing I’d actually be grateful to Parkinson’s for. Part of the disease’s ‘gift’ is a certain stark clarity about the rest of your life. P.D.’s brutal assumption of authority over more and more aspects of life makes you appreciate all those areas where you still have sovereignty” (p. 160).

Lucky Man Michael J Fox

Early in his book Michael provocatively announced that “these last ten years of coming to terms with my disease [have been] the best ten years of my life — not in spite of my illness, but because of it.” He speaks of the disease as a “gift.” He readily admits that while some gifts just keep on giving, this one “just keeps on taking.” And while he is fully aware that no one would ever choose to receive this gift of “relentless assault and accumulating damage,” he insists that being forced to deal with it has “profoundly enriched” his life: “That’s why I consider myself a lucky man” (p. 5). He liked the person Parkinson’s Disease made him: “If you were to rush into this room right now announce that you had struck a deal . . . in which the ten years since my diagnosis could be magically taken away, traded for ten more years as the person I was before — I would, without a moment’s hesitation, tell you to take a hike” (p. 6).

There is much to admire in Michael J. Fox. He had the gumption to rise from poverty to the pinnacle of his profession. He found the good in a bad diagnosis. He refused to let a miserable disease make him miserable. He escaped the escape into alcoholism. He admitted his shortcomings and laughed — and makes us laugh — at his stumbles.

Lucky us. We are lucky that Michael’s fame gave Parkinson’s a more public face than it had before. We are lucky that he has used some of his millions to establish a foundation that continues to support research that we all hope will lead to a cure for Parkinson’s. But we are lucky mostly because he has shown us one man’s way to find the good in what at first looks like only bad.

- Peter G. Beidler

Borrow Lucky Man from NWPF's Lending Library by calling 877.980.7500. 

Peter G. BeidlerPeter G. Beidler
Peter G. Beidler

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