Michael J. Fox Has Perspective

The actor reflects on nearly three decades with Parkinson's.

Michael J. Fox has a new book coming out next week and this has sparked a litany of interviews and features with the popular actor and Parkinson’s activist. The New York Times‘ treatment, “When It Comes to Living With Uncertainty, Michael J. Fox Is a Pro,” is especially powerful. The introduction:

Two years ago, Michael J. Fox had surgery to remove a benign tumor on his spinal cord. The actor and activist, who had been living with Parkinson’s disease for nearly three decades, had to learn to walk all over again.

Four months later, he fell in the kitchen of his Upper East Side home and fractured his arm so badly that it had to be stabilized with 19 pins and a plate. Mired in grueling, back-to-back recoveries, he started to wonder if he had oversold the idea of hope in his first three memoirs, “Lucky Man,” “Always Looking Up” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future.”

“I had this kind of crisis of conscience,” Fox said during a video interview last month from his Manhattan office, where pictures of Tracy Pollan, his wife of 31 years, and his dog, Gus, hung behind him. “I thought, what have I been telling people? I tell people it’s all going to be OK — and it might suck!”

His solution was to channel that honesty into a fourth memoir, “No Time Like the Future,” which Flatiron is publishing on Nov. 17. For an example of his new outlook, consider his perspective on traveling by wheelchair.

“It can be a frustrating and isolating experience, allowing someone else to determine the direction I’m going and the rate of speed I can travel. The pusher is in charge,” Fox writes. “From the point of view of the occupant of the chair, it’s a world of asses and elbows. No one can hear me. To compensate, I raise my voice and suddenly feel like Joan Crawford in ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,’ barking out orders.”

He continues: “Generally the person in control is a stranger, an airport or hotel employee. I’m sure that if we could look each other in the eye, we’d recognize our mutual humanity. But often in the wheelchair, I’m luggage. I’m not expected to say much. Just sit still.” Later, he adds, “No one listens to luggage.”

That he manages that level of optimism and self-reflection despite being dealt a rather bad hand is remarkable, indeed.

While he’s a few years older than me, he came to fame playing Alex P. Keaton on “Family Ties,” who graduated high school the same year I did. I was a big fan of that show and his early movie career, especially the “Back to the Future” movies, “The Secret of My Success,” and “Doc Hollywood.”

He was in the third season of his second star run in a television sitcom, “Spin City,” when he announced his Parkinson’s diagnosis. He’d actually been living with the disease for years, keeping the matter private, until the symptoms made it impossible to hide. He retired from the show the next year.

While he’s made a lot of cameo appearances since, he went from being a superstar to a sentimental favorite. And has managed to live enough of a life with a degenerative disease to fill four memoirs.

It speaks volumes to his fortitude and resiliency. And to what must be an incredibly strong marriage, indeed.

FILED UNDER: Entertainment, Health, Popular Culture
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Teve says:

    I read, many years ago, that individuals generally have a happiness setpoint, and no matter what happens to them, good or bad, if you find them a few months later they’re back to what their setpoint was before the event.

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  2. CSK says:

    @Teve:
    That could be another way of saying we start taking things going well for granted.

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  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    And here I thought he was faking it. s//

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  4. Mister Bluster says:

    But often in the wheelchair, I’m luggage. I’m not expected to say much. Just sit still.” Later, he adds, “No one listens to luggage.”

    As a result of being infected with the polio virus as a newborn infant in 1950 my friend Joe never took one walking step in his entire life. He spent almost all of his 58 years sitting in a wheelchair when he wasn’t in bed. His family lived in the small Central Illinois town of Pana and were unable to care for him. Since this was well before any in home support services he spent his grade school years in a State run institution in Chicago. He told me how the residents of the school who had differing degrees of mobility would help each other get around as there were not enough staff to provide 100% attention to the needs of all those who lived there. If there was no help to be had there was a handrail on the wall of the hallways that he could grab with his modestly stronger left arm (he could barely lift his right arm) and pull himself along sitting in his manual wheelchair.
    By the time he was in his teens he was able to move into his parents house. He qualified for financial assistance from different agencies that paid for an electric wheelchair and paid for a personal attendant. He attended the local High School.
    I met him in ’73 when we were both in our early twenties just after he had graduated from college. I had seen him at one of the local pubs in town and it turned out that he lived on the first floor of the rooming house where I had just rented space in the basement.
    One of the few times he was not in his chair or in bed was when I drove him on a trip to California and back to Illinois in his Ford Econoline van that was not rigged for him to drive. Most days I would lift him into the passenger seat so he could see out the windows as we beat down the sections of US Route 66 that detoured us between the finished spans of Interstates 44 an 40.
    Not long after our return to the midwest we moved to San Francisco. I stayed in California for a year working as his full time live-in attendant before I moved back to the Prairie State.
    Joe stayed in The City for 20 years which gave me the opportunity to visit him in SF on my trips to California to visit my brother in SOCAL.
    Joe was active in the disabled community and had a hand in establishing an Independent Living Center in San Francisco modeled after the one in Berkeley.
    In another role he represented the disabled customers of Pacific Gas and Electric serving on a Citizens Advisory Board. One of the perks PG+E extended to the members of the board was a tour of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power facility near San Louis Obispo. Just happened that the trip was scheduled during one of my visits and Joe needed someone to accompany him on the trip.
    We made our way to a gate at SFO where two Lear Jets were waiting to fly 20 or so of us from San Francisco to the San Louis Obispo Airport.
    When we arrived at San Louis Obispo the flight crew thought that they knew how to remove Joe from the plane. So they used a “chair carry” technique that was all wrong for his condition. By the time they paid attention to his and my objections “Listen to him! He’s trying to tell you something!” They had already moved him down the steps and into his chair.
    When Michael J. Fox says: “No one can hear me” and “No one listens to luggage”. I know exactly what he is talking about.

    Third reload’s a charm!

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  5. Mister Bluster says:

    test… trying to call up edit function in previous post…

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  6. Mister Bluster says:

    Ha! Fat chance of that!

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  7. Mr. Prosser says:

    I think the best cameo performance he did was as an exceptional surgeon with OCD on Scrubs. It showed his talent very well.

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  8. flat earth luddite says:

    That he manages that level of optimism and self-reflection despite being dealt a rather bad hand is remarkable, indeed.

    Indeed, James. I’ve tried to handle my journey for the last nine years with a semblance of his optimism and grace. Looking forward to his new book.

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  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Mister Bluster: Joe sounds like a hell of a dude.

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  10. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Teve:

    Last year I signed up for a medical study. This one was about “emotional wellness”. There was a series of tests on the computer involving memory and reactions to images, a long session in an MRI* where they show you images and check for emotional reactions, an oral test in front of researchers**, and a final session Q&A with a psychology grad student.

    The one big comment I had in the exit interview was that the tests didn’t allow for “zen”. I’m betting that I was an outlier because very little gave me a significant emotional response. My “default happiness state” is “zen”.

    * I now have visual proof that I have a brain.

    ** These were actors (I figured it out half way through) who are deliberately non-responsive and stone-faced. Even knowing they were actors, it was somewhat stressful (it was a stress test). I can’t imagine what it would be like for someone who’s not good at public speaking.

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  11. Mister Bluster says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:..Joe sounds like a hell of a dude.

    When I write about Joe and our exploits together I often forget to note that Joe died of lung cancer in 2008. I was 60 then and he was 58 and I had known him for more than half my lifetime.
    It is hard to express just what it’s like to assist someone who can’t do the things that I do for myself without even thinking about them.
    Even when he was not paying me to be his formal attendant we spent a lot of time together going to events like college basketball games or the local incarnation of Hooters called Show-Me’s.
    I quit choking on the butts a good 10 years or so before he died. He tried several times but couldn’t go more than a few months. I’m sure that had to do with his live in girlfriend who smoked like a chimney.
    There were still smoking sections in Illinois restaurants when we would go to Show-Me’s and order shrimp, sausage and chicken gumbo that you never knew how spicy it would be unless you asked who was working in the kitchen. And then it depended what kind of a mood they were in.
    As his friend I was conflicted about lighting his cigarettes for him after I had quit. He could have torched them himself and would have if I didn’t so I just burned them for him to make his life a little easier.
    I guess I rationalized it by telling myself that it was the first cigarette I lit for him almost 50 years ago when we were both smoking that killed him as much as the last one I lit right before he went into the hospital to be diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. He was dead in four weeks.
    I still think of him every day.

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  12. Kylopod says:

    @Mu Yixiao: Sorry, I couldn’t help thinking of this.

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  13. Teve says:

    @Mister Bluster: who are you quoting?

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