November 14, 2011

Hello.  We haven’t met.  I’m Jaded.

Unfortunately, when you work in a specialized field and deal with so many diagnoses, ethics, symptoms, clinical interventions and realizations, it’s difficult to suspend disbelief in instances when your education knows better.

I finished the book Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult, about fifteen minutes ago.  In short, the book is about the struggles of three individuals, told from each of their perspectives, regarding spirituality, gay marriage, divorce and a custody battle over frozen embryos.  It “stars” Zoe, a 40 year-old Rhode Island-based music therapist.  For this book, Jodi Picoult did loads of research on many subjects including music therapy (Berklee shout-out!) and for the most part, it was accurate and interesting, but I have a small bone to pick.

As a freelance, contracting music therapist (like Zoe) I completely understand the fractured work days, the ethics issues and the instability this type of employment can sometimes necessitate.  Howevah…I know many, many music therapists, and most do not work with seven different populations over the course of a work week.  Having done my required 1040-hour post-coursework internship in a place where I feel like I worked with almost every population, I came out of that experience knowing what I wanted to focus on the most.  Most of my MT friends and colleagues work with one or two populations which leads me to believe that the “average” freelance music therapist has a couple of preferred populations and sticks with them for the most part.

Zoe isn’t an “average” music therapist though… She works in burn units, NICUs, in Pediatric Oncology, in general medical settings with all ages, in nursing homes, with autistic kids, with suicidal teenagers, and also played music at the time of death for at least one family.  Something about this screams: “I’m trying to force as much about music therapy as I possible can in the space of nearly 500 pages!”

I think part of what threw me off is that Jodi Picoult did some of her research in Boston, and I was aware of her work with area music therapists while it was happening.  I know almost all of the music therapists named in her “Acknowledgments” and I also know that one of them is THE music therapist at Shriner’s Hospital (which specifically deals with burn victims).  Another two of them work with kids with autism, and four were my professors when I was at Berklee.  I know too much!

I’m sure someone reading about music therapy for the first time has no idea that this is the case, but I do, and it was very discouraging and distracting.  I actually had a really hard time getting through the first chapter (I put it down and picked it back up probably six times before continuing to read) because it seemed like Picoult was trying too hard to explain MT to the general public. Don’t get me wrong, we need all the help we can get, as most people think we’re volunteers, and either don’t know what music therapy is, or think it’s a new age-y crock, despite decades of research and almost 70 years of music therapy as a legitimate field with a requisite of at least a Bachelor’s Degree to practice.  BUT it still seemed forced.  And then I realized this jaded thinking is a pattern with me.

The Notebook.  Eh.  Everyone I was friends with when that movie came out though it was amazing and cried throughout the whole thing.  In the beginning, I focused probably too much on the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease the main character received.  At the time, I was still in school and had just learned about AD in depth.  In 2004, there was not a thing could be done about finding out if someone ACTUALLY had AD until after they passed away, and that very definitive diagnosis bothered me.  Also, the likelihood of a person with advanced Alzheimer’s (who gets so confused and agitated that she needs regular PRNs) all of a sudden being able to remember and discuss whole parts about her life because someone reads her a story is absurd.  I believed that even then, and now I’ve been working with folks with an AD diagnosis for years.  The absurdity is all the more obvious now.

A few years ago, a co-worker whose mother-in-law had advanced AD, recommended a film to me about Alzheimer’s.  At the time, I still had hope about art documenting real life in an accurate and realistic way.  Away From Her is a movie about a woman who develops early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.  I thought I was going to love it, but I couldn’t even get through the first hour.  It’s been a few years since I tried watching it, so I won’t go into detail for fear that it will be inaccurate, but I remember being embarrassed for everyone involved in the movie.  It was actually nominated for several Academy Awards, including the main character for Best Actress.  Clearly the “Academy” was not aware of many things.  The woman, very quickly goes from getting lost while cross-country skiing by herself, to deciding that she needs to go into a nursing home to ease the caregiver burden on her husband (let’s face it, people, the financial burden of going into long-term care is huge and that’s usually the last resort).  Within 30 days, she strikes up a relationship with a non-verbal man who is also married.  I won’t go elaborate on the plot, but it was not good.  I think it may have been good for someone who didn’t spend 40 hours a week with 60+ people in varying stages of Alzheimer’s, but I did, and everything about the movie was disappointing.  I have realized after seeing several movies featuring characters with dementia that really no one does a very good job of acting like they have AD, and it’s super-duper obvious to me because I see it every day.

See?  I told you.  Jaded.  These are supposed to be beautiful films about beautiful relationships. I couldn’t stand them, and I thought the actors were questionable.  Unfortunately, not every small budget indie film can get Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio or Kevin Spacey to play a compromised individual, and they’re probably some of the few who would do it well.

There is hope, though.  I did, for the most part, enjoy Sing You Home after the first couple of chapters.  I watched The Music Never Stopped without picking it apart (I was most impressed by the hard-core 1980’s art direction choices) and I read Still Alice, a book about a woman with EOAD, from start to finish and enjoyed it!!  And recommended it to others!!  And thought it was extremely well done!!

There is hope.  But there is also the possibility that people are realizing that they need to do a better job.  That they need to do their research.  That just because a character has dementia does not mean that three weeks into the diagnosis she will be outside sweeping the lawn or putting her purse in the freezer.  That real life cant always be copied well.  That not all of the information a writer gets about a topic needs to be squeezed in.  AND…That for goodness’ sake, not every book needs to be turned into a movie.

If only someone making those choices would read this.


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