In Britain, it has long been an open secret that former prime minister Margaret Thatcher has been sliding into dementia. “Open” because old friends and political allies can all see the changes in the proud woman known as the Iron Lady, particularly since she suffered a series of mini-strokes in 2002 and withdrew from public speaking on her doctors’ advice. And “secret” because no one has spoken publicly about it.
Until now. Last month her daughter, Carol Thatcher, revealed all to a newspaper, The Mail on Sunday. In an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir, “A Swim-On Part in the Goldfish Bowl,” Carol Thatcher not only announced that her mother, now 82, is suffering from dementia but offered excruciating evidence.
Sometimes Mrs. Thatcher forgets what she has eaten for breakfast, her daughter wrote. Once she conflated the Falklands War with the Bosnian conflict. Cruelly, she has had to be reminded repeatedly that her beloved husband, Denis, is dead (he died in 2003.)
Carol Thatcher’s heartbreak at seeing her formidable mother reduced to a confused old woman is all too familiar to anyone caring for a friend or relative suffering a similar fate. But Mrs. Thatcher is an iconic and larger-than-life figure — “far more than the sum of her parts,” Vanessa Feltz wrote in the Daily Express — and Britain is still a country where privacy, particularly in matters of health, is valued. Many people have reacted angrily to Carol Thatcher’s disclosures.
In The Daily Telegraph, Andrew Pierce noted that Mrs. Thatcher’s friends had purposely kept silent, in order to “preserve the great lady’s dignity and grace in a quiet, discreet way.” In The Daily Express, Anne Widdecombe, a Tory M.P., said, “The only consolation, perhaps, is that Margaret Thatcher almost certainly does not know what her daughter has done.” And in The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie raised the issue of who owns the reputation of a public figure like Mrs. Thatcher — her family or the wider world?
“My question is: why did Carol think it right to reveal her mother’s plight, especially when none of her political friends had ever done so even in their political books?” he asked. “I can only conclude it was done for money. I hope she feels proud of herself.” And across the Atlantic, Ronald Reagan Jr. — whose father publicly announced at age 82 that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease — called Carol Thatcher’s detailed account “in monumentally bad taste and unnecessary.”
On the one hand, it does seem to violate a proud woman’s privacy to describe the sad diminishment of her formidable powers, particularly when she doesn’t seem capable — as President Reagan was — of making the disclosures herself. On the other hand, it makes her poignantly human. Many of our parents will, in the end, suffer what she is suffering; many of us will, too, when our turn comes.
So why the secrecy and shame? Many people who have written to the British papers and posted on various Web sites have made robust arguments for speaking openly about one of the great taboos of our time. As a friend of mine put it, “If you refuse to talk about it, you’re treating it as something shameful,” once the common response to cancer.
My friend is acquainted with a 71-year-old woman whose mind is slipping. Her husband knows it; her acquaintances know it; she herself knows it on some level, despite her doctor’s euphemistic diagnosis. She anxiously asks whether she is repeating things (she is) and frets that she is forgetting what she used to remember (she is).
But she refuses to confront the obvious, and her friends have all been forced to join this conspiracy of silence. This means there is a lot of speculating and gossiping about her condition. How bad is it? Can we bring it up with her husband? What plans is she making for the future? At the same time, there is no real chance to acknowledge the reality or commiserate with the family’s pain.
Gary Chandler is a prion expert. He is the CEO of Crossbow Communications, author of several books and producer of documentaries about health and environmental issues around the world. Chandler is connecting the dots to the global surge in neurodegenerative disease, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, chronic wasting disease and other forms of prion disease. The scientific name for prion disease is transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. The operative word is “transmissible.” Even the global surge in autism appears to be related.