In American life, we think we are most free when we don't need anybody. Exactly what Alzheimer's represents is absolute dependency - That's what we all need to learn - how deeply we need one another.
- Stanley Hauerwas, Professor of Theological Ethics
If someone listens, or stretches out a hand, or whispers a kind word of encouragement, or attempts to understand a lonely person, extraordinary things begin to happen.
- Loretta Girzartis, Author
I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.
- Albert Schweitzer, Missionary
They invented hugs to let people know you love them without saying anything.
- Bil Keane, Cartoonist
Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essayist
Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat . . .We must find each other.
- Mother Theresa, Saint
You can't stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.
- A. A. Milne, Author (Winnie the Pooh)
Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World.
- Christopher Columbus, Explorer
The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.
- William James, Philosopher
Nothing is more revealing than movement.
- Martha Graham, Dancer
A good traveler is one who does not know where he is going to, and a perfect traveler does not know where he came from.
- Lin Yutang, Writer
All real living is meeting.
- Martin Buber, Philosopher
Memory Bridge Newsletter
06/10/08 - Memory and the Media: Memory Is a Mob Killer
Memory Bridge is deeply interested in how cultural assumptions about memory and identity affect people with Alzheimer's disease and related dementias. The way we imagine all sort of "realities," including other people, is always influenced by the social and cultural forces that shape and shift our world. For that reason, we are building our bridges with an attentive ear to and eye on the cultural assumptions and practices that impinge, however indirectly, on the lived experiences of people with dementia. Kim Bell, English teacher at Lake Forest Academy, has agreed to share with us her ongoing personal reflections about memory in literary and pop culture in America. We found the insights of her essay on The Sopranos profoundly stimulating and trust you will, too.
The final episode of the popular HBO series The Sopranos ends ambiguously. Tony and Carmela sit in a diner with their son AJ and await their daughter Meadow's arrival. The camera cuts between the inside of the restaurant where the other patrons leer ominously and the street outside where Meadow, grinding the gears, struggles to parallel park her car in the rain. Both scenes seem to be setting the stage for Tony's takedown. Then, as bells on the door sound, Meadow enters the restaurant, Tony looks up, the music cuts out, and the screen goes dark. And that's the end of The Sopranos.
But the much-asked question remains: is it the end of Tony Soprano? The music (their last name is "Soprano") dying suddenly, the black screen--perhaps these are the filmic representations of the gunshot that the final scenes seem to anticipate. In a previous episode, Tony suggests that death will be just that: the lights go out, everything goes dark. Just poof, gone.
However, without a smoking gun or, as is more likely on any given episode of this show, a lot of blood, we can't know for sure. So the other possibility is that the series simply ends with a domestic scene fraught with the cosmic level of tension that accompanies any interaction of this family within The Family.
But the answer is perhaps more interesting than either of the above. This is because, toward the end of the series, before the final lights-out of the final episode, Tony's life as he knows it is already over. Strangely enough, this has very little to do with the mob war brewing between New Jersey and New York--the conflict most likely to result in Tony's murder in the diner--and everything to do with Alzheimer's disease and memory loss.
In many ways, this makes perfect sense: our greatest villains are usually inside of us. And Tony's greatest adversary has always been one of his own (biological) family members--his uncle, Junior Soprano, whom Tony usurps early in the series. Junior's rage at being passed over--and his potential revenge--are not what pose the biggest threat to Tony's power and well-being. Instead, Tony's power and the power of the Soprano Family depend on a kind of cultural memory remaining intact. Junior personifies the breakdown of this cultural memory when he is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. As the disease progresses, it causes not only the anticipated physiological and psychological threats to Junior himself, but also to Tony's existence as a character and as the symbol of an criminal institution. In one of the initial manifestations of his confusion, Junior shoots Tony in the gut. It is the only time, despite the violent world that Tony Soprano makes his living in, that he is ever shot by anyone. And it is a nearly fatal wound.
Tony survives the gunshot wound in a way that he cannot survive the dissolution of the memory of the "way things used to be." Junior embodies the "old ways" that the Family operated, and those ways are losing purchase, both on the street and in the person of Junior Soprano. The characters in the final season of The Sopranos are nostalgic and obsessed with their memories--rehearsing them in almost every episode as though they might, at any moment, disappear altogether. Then, when some of Junior's old cronies hatch a plan to liberate him from the low-security institution of incarceration which houses him, he affects confusion in order to remain where he is. Without his memory, there is nothing "out there" on the street to return to. When Tony pays his one and only visit to Junior, the real disease is revealed. Tony, frustrated with Junior's vague responses, says to him, "You don't know who I am, do you?" and "You used to run New York," to which Junior responds, "That's nice." Within the context of the plot of the show, the life of the Family depends upon generational memory that stretches all the way back to Italy. Without that, Tony Soprano, Mob Boss, doesn't exist, and viewers are simply tuning in to watch another banally dysfunctional family eat dinner together in a restaurant. And this is, after all, our final "shot."
Ultimately, the final season(s) of this show about The Mob offer a representation of Alzheimer's disease and what that disease has come to mean in the contemporary media. In this show, an MRI reveals more than the FBI--and is more damning--because what keeps a man like Tony alive is not "mob mentality" but "mob memory." The loss of "mob memory" is a death sentence, or perhaps more aptly, an authorization for mass murder, because what's really at stake in the end is not a single life--Tony's--but a whole way of life. Once the link to a shared past disintegrates, so do the present and the future. In the last installment, the future is probably best represented by Meadow who, despite the hopeful fertility captured by her name, in the final moments, can't even park a car.
The Sopranos intelligently demonstrates the power of memory to be a bridge spanning the past, present, and future--and that the loss of it is in many ways devastating. More importantly, the ambiguous ending (is Tony shot or not? does he live or die?) also represents the ambiguous moment we are living in now regarding our relationship to dementia and Alzheimer's: when the lights go out, who's still there?