Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer's, My Mother, and Me

Leavitt, Sarah

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Graphic Memoir

  • Date of entry: Mar-07-2022
  • Last revised: Mar-07-2022


Sarah Leavitt’s graphic memoir, Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me, narrates and vividly illustrates the pain and difficulty of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. Leavitt’s memoir shares her family’s experiences nursing their mother, Midge Leavitt, for six years following her diagnosis at the early age of 52. “I created this book,” Leavitt explains, “to remember her as she was before she got sick, but also to remember her as she was during her illness, the ways in which she was transformed and the way in which parts of her endured” (Leavitt 1). The memoir’s spare, black-and-white panels trace her mother’s deterioration from the first, seemingly innocuous symptoms (such as misremembering conversations and forgetting to unplug an iron) to the debilitating and tragic manifestations of Alzheimer’s, such as confusion, behavioral changes, aphasia, and ultimately, the inability to recognize loved ones. As greatly painful as these experiences were for Leavitt, she singles out from the murk and monotony of caregiving moments that inspire laughter, introspection, and gratitude. Early one morning, Leavitt’s mother wakes her to admire a fresh, “glittering” snowfall (86). On another occasion, Leavitt illustrates a rainstorm. Instead of keeping dry, her mother wants to stand in the downpour: “So finally we let go of her. She stuck out her tongue to taste the rain” (78). For Leavitt, humor brings, if not understanding, comfort when the stifling presence of her mother’s suffering goes momentarily unfelt. Caregiving also stirs recollections about her mother’s personality. Leavitt remembers, for instance, her mother’s love of Granny Smith apples: “She ate the core and stem and everything, crunching loudly” (23). She remembers her mother’s love of nature, “. . . plants, worms, rocks, soil. She did not seem separate from it as most people did” (93). Her mother also adores the poetry of E. E. Cummings and Robert Frost and Aretha Franklin’s music. Leavitt does not allow suffering to efface her mother’s personality, providing a poignantly moving account of how caregiving shapes memory and deepens family love in unexpected ways.


The title of Leavitt’s graphic memoir refers to the dead neurofibrillary tangles of brain cells characteristic of Alzheimer's disease, but it is simultaneously evocative of the strands of curly hair that she collects from her mother, a “comforting” process: “I kept the boxes [of hair] on shelves above the bed and it helped me sleep at night, just knowing they were there” (63). Tangles also refers to the analogy offered by Leavitt’s partner, who remarks: “Your mom’s mind is like the garden this summer. Tangled, but with spots of brightness” (114). Even more, the novel’s characters are tangled up and implicated in one another’s lives as they share their roles as caregivers, growing more dependent upon one another as their mother’s condition deteriorates. While the narrative focuses on the insular events of the family, some of the most affecting moments are when Leavitt expresses frustration with oblivious friends and obtuse medical professionals. She is disgusted by family friends—or “casserole droppers”—who avoid visiting for fear of being unnerved by her mother’s condition (124). Leavitt also has little patience for a physician who overwhelms her mother with diagnostic questions. The panel for this scene depicts her mother, seated in a vacant consultation room, surrounded by a set of looming, bolded interrogations, “What year is it?” and “Where do you live?” (36). But these exasperating disappointments, Leavitt shows, are minor and only draw her family closer together. There is much in Tangles that might offer solace to current (or former) caregivers who struggle to give loved ones with Alzheimer’s a quality, dignified end-of-life experience.


Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

Place Published

New York



Page Count