Matthew Thomas

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We Are Not Ourselves

Thomas, Matthew

Last Updated: Jun-20-2016
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


In 1951, Eileen Tumulty, the novel’s main character, was nine years old and living with her Irish immigrant parents in the Woodside section of Queens, New York. The novel follows Eileen straight through the next 60 years, but concentrates on the years covering the time of her husband’s Alzheimer’s disease.    

Eileen was forced to learn how to manage a household at a very young age when first her mother was kept in a hospital for 8 months after a hysterectomy, and then again when her mother became incapacitated by alcoholism. Eileen had reason to think this life was her destiny until she accompanied her father to a better part of Queens. There she saw “places…that contained more happiness than ordinary places did.” She concluded, “unless you knew that such places existed, you might be content to stay where you were.” (pp. 15-16) Eileen’s ambition was ignited. While continuing to manage the household and care for her mother, she does well in school, becomes a nurse, and eventually moves up the nursing management at various hospitals.  

Eileen’s ambitions encompassed ideas on her eventual mate. She chooses Ed Leary despite hoping for someone who was not quite so Irish and not quite so much of the same place. Ed was a promising neuroscience graduate student who she thought could be a high achiever with the right motivation: “If there was anything she could help him with, it was thinking big.” (p. 97) Her motivation was not enough and neither were the many offers he received from life science companies. He became a professor at a local community college. He had a passion for teaching students who attend community colleges and he could never see himself anywhere else—for love or money. Ed’s intransigence frustrated Eileen, but she accepted it and plowed ahead. She studied the possible ways of escaping the old neighborhood and also delivered a son she thought she’d never have after years of futile efforts.  

It doesn’t go smoothly. While she is getting surer of where they would go, Ed begins to exhibit disconcerting behaviors. For them to live in Bronxville, Eileen will have to accept a house that needs a lot of money and attention to rehabilitate. The remainder of the story is about how Eileen simultaneously manages Ed’s rapid deterioration from what eventually is diagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease, her job requirements, and a son progressing from adolescence through college.  

We Are Not Ourselves
touches on many of the aspects involved in prolonged illness including the daily struggles managing the care of someone with progressive dementia, complexities of health care delivery systems, frustrations with byzantine health care coverage, and threats to relationships among the individual family members with one another, and the grace that can manifest during the bleakest moments. The author does not dwell on all these issues, but gives them enough attention so that their effects will be recognizable to many readers who have experienced them. In doing so, he was able to draw from his own experiences with his father who was stricken with early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

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