In 2008 Pamela White began writing a book about her mother, Marian Steele who had died in 2001 of Alzheimers Disease. The project was both a tribute to the beloved matriarch of the family and to a celebrated artist. However, early in the project Pamela began having memory difficulties of her own and at the age of 61 was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers.
Her son Banker White, a filmmaker and summer resident of the Vineyard, started filming his mother as she continued to work on the project as a way to help her remember where she stood each day with the book. Soon, however, what was a basic teaching aide began to take shape as a documentary about the effects of Alzheimers on the patient, her family and her community of friends.
On Friday, October 4, at 5 p.m. the movie The Genius of Marian will be screened by the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown. Banker White will attend the screening and answer questions afterwards. The movie is free for anyone with Alzheimers, their family and their support staff.
The documentary is done very much in the style of a home movie. Banker shadows his mother in closeup as she goes about her day, visits the doctor and discusses her disease. The film sheds light on a subject most often kept in the shadows and indeed Pamela is heard early on in the movie refusing to admit to having Alzheimers. By the end of the movie, though, she declares her acceptance of this new stage of life. “I have no regrets,” she says.
At one point her friend says that Pamela had “the furthest to fall.” She was a model, actress, social worker and the brightest light in her community. The friend then begins to weep. “I don’t want to say she was, because she still is. Why did I say was?”
The most touching moments are those with her husband, who for a long while attempts to do all the caregiving himself. The couple have been married for 40 years and the scenes of him waking her in the morning, getting her dressed and making her breakfast as Pamela wonders aloud what day it is are devastating in their quiet beauty.
Near the end of the movie when a granddaughter is born and the whole family gathers at the hospital, the camera pans back to reveal the full tableau of three generations of family celebrating the future, but with one very glaring exception. Pamela sits on a hospital bed near the center of the action and yet she no longer knows to reach out to hold her new granddaughter, nor does anyone risk the danger of giving the baby to her. The scene encapsulates the thrust of the movie, at all times honest, unflinching and deeply tender.