Marcia Gay Harden On Her Mom’s Battle With Alzheimer’s: 'I Never Thought I’d Be a Statistic' (INTERVIEW)

In this exclusive, the Academy Award-winning actor talks about her life, career and new book, 'The Seasons of My Mother: A Memoir of Love, Family and Flowers,' which deals with her mother Beverly’s ongoing battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
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Marcia Gay Harden Photo

Marcia Gay Harden

Marcia Gay Harden won an Academy Award for her role in Pollock, has appeared in more than 50 other films (Miller’s Crossing, The First Wives Club, Mystic River), won a Tony award for her role in God of Carnage on Broadway and can be seen in the TV drama Code Black, now in its third season on CBS.

But it’s books we’re talking about when Harden calls from her home in California. Her book, in fact. The Seasons of My Mother: A Memoir of Love, Family and Flowers (Atria Books) was released May 1st and examines the parent/child bond between Harden and her 83-year-old mother Beverly.

Originally destined to be a calendar book, it was to be a collaborative effort between mother and daughter focused on flowers. Long a practitioner of Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, Beverly’s participation in the venture was shelved as she began her long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

“I started writing it because I didn’t want her legacy to be Alzheimer’s,” says Harden of her initial hopes for the book. “I wanted it to be the beautiful life that she’d lived and Ikebana. I probably wrote it in a way to keep that person that I was watching slip away alive inside of me as well.”

An honest and emotionally telling account of the lives of two vibrant and creative women, Harden, 58, says her book has taken on a whole different shape and meaning now that it's been released. “What I find I’m talking about a lot now is Alzheimer’s, and I think it was naïve of me to think it also wouldn’t be about that. Certainly, the early goal was to make a difference in the Alzheimer’s world, to raise awareness. The challenge for me has been standing those two things in marriage with each other. And that is my mother: she is her incredible past, she is the present moment that she is living in with as much grace and dignity as she can muster, and moving toward the future. I feel that with this book we can help make a difference in Alzheimer’s awareness.”

Never intended to be a self-help book about the disease, it was created as the “memories of our lives and ultimately the struggle with Alzheimer’s,” Harden says.

'The Seasons of My Mother' Book Cover Photo

Cover of 'The Seasons of My Mother: A Memoir of Love, Family and Flowers'

It is also a chronicle of a remarkably successful acting career and the everyday family life that existed beyond the big screen and red carpet premieres. Recounting her earliest memories as one of five children to Texas natives Beverly and Thad, Harden retraces her life — including childhood moves to Japan, Germany, California and Maryland thanks to her father’s work as an officer in the United States Navy — with a touching and self-aware candor.

At the beginning of the 21st century Harden was initially riding high. In 2001 she was awarded the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Lee Krasner in Ed Harris’ biopic Pollock. Her parents were both in attendance to see her accept the award. However, the following year her father died, leaving Beverly widowed after 46 years of marriage. In 2003 further tragedy struck when Harden’s niece and nephew died, along with their mother, as a result of a fire in their Queens, New York home. Around the same time, Beverly confided to Harden that “something is wrong. I’m afraid I’m forgetting the simplest of things.” By the end of 2011, Harden’s marriage was crumbling and Beverly had been officially diagnosed.

“I was falling apart at the seams,” Harden says of the period. “I am so honored to look back and say that I was able to keep it together, because all these unlikely people – professionals, people I work with, friends, therapists – came together to say, ‘We’ve got you.’ I went to a clinic, a kind of healing place, and I would be there during the daytime and take classes on cognitive behavioral therapy and meditating. Taking classes on how to be in my own skin with all these things going on around it, because I had a goal. And the goal, the light that was pulling me through was my children." 

"I wanted to be a good mother. And I wasn’t. I wasn’t being a good mother, I wasn’t being a good daughter, I was not a wife anymore," Harden adds. "All the roles and the labels of life had disappeared for me. And the one thing that I most cherished – being a mother – I was doing a bad job at. I was impatient, I was taking things out on my kids because I was under incredible duress. So, with this team of people, they gave me the space of a month to pull it together. And I did. That was the crumble moment. I came back standing on my own two feet, being able to continue to battle. By them giving me space they let me return to center, to return to the battle. Because it wasn’t like I came back and everything was fine. You must have a core strength to battle, and I had lost my core strength. They helped me get it back.”

Married for 15 years, Harden has three children with ex-husband Thaddeus Scheel and 19-year-old Eulala and 14-year-old twins Julitta and Hudson were often enlisted to help as mom was writing The Seasons of My Mother.

“Because I am an actor I couldn’t just write and understand what those words felt like on a page, I had to read them out loud and if they didn’t work reading them out loud I would go back and work it until they would,” Harden says. “I would grab my children and say, ‘Guys, would somebody sit down and listen to this?’ And the first question would always be, ‘How long will it take, Mom?’”

Harden admits writing, especially the chapters about divorce and Alzheimer’s, was often difficult. “I never, ever thought that I would be a statistic. When death and divorce and Alzheimer’s become a part of your life you think, ‘Oh, I am part of the 45 million people worldwide [affected by the disease], I’m part of the fifty percent population worldwide that gets divorced. Suddenly you are a statistic and it really threatens your individuality.”

Of late, Harden has been trying to practice the power of standing still, what she describes in the book as “perhaps the most important lesson” learned from her mother.

“Now, I’m incredibly, incredibly grateful for the life that I lead,” Harden says. “I’m very happy being a single mom. I’m in a good relationship/friendship with their dad. I want my kids to have a father. And what’s point of all the animosity? What an incredible waste of energy. There’s no point lamenting the past. You must try to stay present in the now – sure, it’s not always easy – but I think writing the book has helped change my perspective that way.”