In the past, I was always quite ambivalent towards Michael J. Fox. He was just another actor; I remember seeing a number of his films – the Back to Future franchise, Teen Wolf, etc – and, later on, we watched Spin City with some enjoyment. But his boyish charms didn’t work their way under my skin (I remember making a facile judgement about his height).
Now, however, I have a great deal of respect for the man.
When I was first diagnosed with Young Onset Parkinson’s, I was reminded that Fox, too, had the condition – he was diagnosed at the tender age of 29, ten years younger than me. I knew that he’d written a book about it (“Lucky Man”), but I didn’t feel up to reading it straight away.
However, I can’t resist the idea of reading a book for long. I duly ordered a copy from Amazon and was about to add it to the pending pile when I decided to have a sneaky peak at the first few pages. I could barely put it down.
Fox adopts an engaging writing style, and he doesn’t allow himself to wallow in his misfortunes. “Lucky Man” tells the tale of how a self-proclaimed “army brat” from Canada made it big in Hollywood (at least in part by being the right face, in the right place, in the right time), and then what happened to his career – and his life – when he was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease. This isn’t, however, your usual celebrity biography (although I’m not sure how I know that, as I don’t make a habit of reading celebrity biographies; perhaps I should say that this isn’t what I imagine a standard celebrity biography to be).
Fox doesn’t dwell on the Hollywood successes; he skims through that era, peppering wry observations here and there, stopping to describe significant events such as his wedding to Family Ties co-star Tracy Pollan and the lengths that they went to to avoid the paparazzi. But the subject that this book revolves around is his diagnosis of Parkinson’s – his denial, his subsequent acceptance and the various coping mechanisms he adopted. Fox also documents his partial retirement from acting and the beginnings of a new ‘career’ as an advocate and activist on behalf of other Parkinson’s patients.
“Always Looking Up” picks up pretty much where “Lucky Man” finishes. Fox talks about his last days as a full time actor, and about the genesis of his previous book. He talks about how the idea of a Foundation for Parkinson’s research evolved – how he was inspired by Lance Armstrong (Tour de France champion cyclist and cancer survivor) and Christopher Reeve (former actor, quadriplegic after a horse-riding accident).
Fox also touches base with Muhammad Ali (former boxer and fellow Parkinson’s patient) and has a run-in with Rush Limbaugh (radio talk show host), who accused Fox of faking or exaggerating his symptoms in a political television advertisement in which he (Fox) advocated funding for stem cell research. The latter incident, while plainly uncomfortable for Fox, seemed to work in Fox’s favour, particularly as Fox retained his dignity by refusing to enter the fray.
The political furore over stem cell research features quite heavily in this latter book. I must admit to having an imperfect grasp on the reasons for this; Fox’s explanations neatly cleared up my confusion.
Both of these books are a joy to read. I would recommend these books to anyone, with or without a connection to Parkinson’s or a penchant for Michael J. Fox. Fox reveals himself to be an entertaining writer; witty, thoughtful, warm and intelligent. Neither book is dull (even the passages about American sports and American politics – neither of which I understand as fully as Fox seemed to imagine his audience might – were interesting and, on occasion, informative – I was particularly tickled by the description of the “antiquated voting machines” used in his district of New York. A machine? For voting? I’ve ony come across the methodology that employs a pencil, a slip of paper and a box). My only caveat is that Fox occasionally comes across as being a bit too optimistic (is he too good to be true?), and that his slight “New Age” tendencies can be a bit wearing at times.
Of course, Michael J. Fox is a wealthy man, and with wealth comes privilege, and high quality health care. He does not have to put himself in the public eye, but I, for one am glad that he has done so, and continues to do so. His fundraising and political clout is valuable for funding research, and his visibility is a constant boost to public awareness of Parkinson’s, with the bonus that it highlights the fact that younger people can get the condition, too.
Fox has since written a third memoir. This volume, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future: Twists and Turns and Lessons Learned” seems to be a collection of anecdotes rather than a conventional autobiographical tome. Of course, I haven’t actually read it, yet, so I can’t tell you any more about it…