Insights on Aging from Charlie and Algernon

I’m plagued by thoughts of aging lately. Not so much in myself, though I’ll admit to moments of decrepit muscles and wormy memory. No, I’ve been shocked by changes in people around me. Perhaps it’s from having watched my father decline during the past year, but as neighbors return for “Season” I’m surprised that they seem much older and less spry. Because they are dressing younger and trying to act younger, my guess is they have aging on their minds too. It’s unsettling. I’ve always believed that you are truly as old as you feel and members of my family have been assumed much younger due to physical fitness and energy.

So where does this anxiety over aging come from? I’ve found clues in recently rereading Flowers for Algernon,  Daniel Keyes’ Nebula-winning novel. (Actually, the story has probably exacerbated my anxieties.) I had to read the novelette (which won the 1960 Hugo award) several times while in school. But I’ve finally read the novel, a goal ever since reading the book Algernon, Charlie, and I by Keyes about the writing of this award-winning story.

A writer's journey. Daniel Keyes shares insights about the writing "Flowers for Algernon."

A writer’s journey. Daniel Keyes shares insights about the writing “Flowers for Algernon.”

For those unfamiliar with the tale, the flowers are for the grave of a lab mouse named Algernon. Algernon was the successful subject of an experiment combining neurosurgery and a combination of enzyme and hormone injections to triple his intelligence. At least the researchers thought his results were successful. That’s when they decided to test it on Charlie Gordon, a young man with an IQ of 68. Within a few months his intelligence surpassed that of everyone involved in the research. Not until Charlie and Algernon are “displayed” at the annual psychological convention does Charlie realize a major flaw in the experiment.  By now his intelligence has peaked and Algernon is showing signs of decline. Charlie races against the time he has left to find a solution only to realize that the decline he will face is in direct correlation to the rapid increase in his intelligence. During the course of not quite eight months Charlie triples his intelligence and then returns to an IQ of around 70. The only problem is this time he holds a hazy understanding that the people around him whom he used to think of as mental giants are not as smart as he thinks they are. Unlike before the operation, he knows that when they joke with him they are really making fun of his low intelligence.

Award-winning story by Daniel Keyes.

Award-winning story by Daniel Keyes.

As I read this novel I considered what it must be like to go from docile acceptance and contentment in a simple life to super-intellect marred by an inability to relate socially or emotionally with others. One of several problems Charlie faces is finding no one to talk to since even the brightest could not sustain conversations with his font of knowledge. Yet, how is this different from aging? Not simply the mental decline which may show itself in senility, but even the slower response as an octogenarian gathers thoughts before responding during conversation. Or, the slower movements septuagenarians develop to maintain balance and avoid minor injuries.

Charlie begins to stumble and must “remember” to walk carefully to avoid tripping — “knowledge” he regains in order to survive again with a double-digit IQ. I also think of Charlie having a sense that he used to know things, such as remembering reading a particular book but not recalling what it was about and opening it to discover he recognizes only a few words. Do the elderly have such feelings? Do they also have a sense that they used to know about a topic but cannot articulate facts or add to a discussion about it? I believe I saw such realizations cloud the eyes of my father during the last year. Not that the elderly have below-average intelligence but those feelings of “knowing” they “used to have” sharper reflexes, better recall, something to add which is new and thought-provoking—those realities of aging must make them at times feel like Charlie with a sense that what he once had is lost and he knows it.

The most touching part of the story is watching Charlie try to retain his knowledge but watching it slip through his fingers. Like sand in an hour glass, youth slips away. We can do nothing about it, really, except perhaps slow it, try to make it move at a different rate than it does for others. In the end, aging is a natural part of the cycle of life. Whether we work hard, play hard, or both, we move through the process of growth and decline and are left with a “knowing” that we accomplished something, that we lived our life. For some, like Charlie, we can feel happiness despite not being unable to recall why.

It’s interesting that children want to age, be older. I recall trying to look and act older all during my teens. And then, when we finally have that wisdom and respect we seem to seek in our youth, we feel the need to try to reverse time’s influence by dressing and acting younger. This cycle of life is strange indeed. Thanks to both Charlie and Algernon, I think I have enough insight to alleviate my anxieties. Here’s to living in the present and enjoying the knowledge, wisdom, and physical abilities we have in this moment.