Lucky Man: A Memoir by Michael J. Fox

[13 May 2002]

By Nikki Tranter

A Learning Experience

“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to idenitify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
—Susan Sontag

Though People magazine broke the story not long before, it was during an interview with Barbara Walters in 1998 that Michael J. Fox revealed to the public that for the past seven years, he’d been suffering from Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease. Walters told the apprehensive Fox that the public’s right to know was about more than just “morbid curiosity,” and offered the encouragement that “people care about you…this is a learning experience for everyone.”

And she was right. Three years later, this ongoing story takes a new turn for his admirers, from discovery and a sense of mourning for Fox to feeling empowered by his emotional leap from despair to acceptance. In Lucky Man, Fox effectively enables his readers to understand many of the problems facing himself and other Parkinson’s Disease [PD] patients, from the debilitating physical effects of the disease to the amazing inner support of the PD community.

Fox’s book is not just another Hollywood cry for attention hidden in the form of an autobiography. Though he may be known primarily for his work as actor, movies and movie making are not why Fox put pen to paper. All the necessary talk of life on the set and behind the scenes of Family Ties is there, as well as few celebrity stories, such as a night out with Princess Diana and a cutting interlude with Cher. But otherwise, fluff is at a minimum. Fox has something to say and he says it, in a thrifty 260 pages.

His story is an engaging read, especially for fellow PD sufferers as it brings the disease into the public forum, but also as a story of accepting the challenges life affords. We go from the depths of despair, with Fox submerged in the tub in a dark and lonely bathroom, the only place he finds solace from jerking joints and a non-understanding rest of the world, to the heights of fame on the Emmy stage, all the while being kept aware that somewhere a hand is shaking or a leg twitching. It’s a startlingly visual way to tell his story, continually reinforcing just how terrifying PD can be, whether you’re rich and famous or just part of the anonymous middle-class.

Fox begins his story on the set of Doc Hollywood in 1990 when he discovered a tremor in his left pinky finger. He soon takes the reader back to his childhood in Edmonton with his family, drawing distinct parallels between his experiences and that of his father, both being stubborn and compassionate. We also learn of his adoration for his Nana and how her unwavering faith in him and his ability pushed him to achieve his goals as an actor in America. Fox’s is the kind of family that comes together throughout hardship and seeks to support each other at any opportunity. He recounts life with his family as though watching the action unfold through a camera lens, instead of focusing on any one family member or event. He shifts about, giving each “character” equal time, effectively conveying just how devoted a family unit the Fox’s were and still are.

In addition, Fox’s wife, actress Tracy Pollan (loving referred to in the book as “Tra”) is also a monumental support to Fox throughout his successes and failures. In fact, Fox’s many mentions of his wife make her just as a compelling a character as he, if not more so. Similarly to Fox’s father, Tracy’s individuality and understanding shift him back into line and keep him focused on what’s important—which to her credit, is often his own sense of self more than anything else.

Fox tells his story with a distinct openness, giving charm and easiness to his prose. Occasionally, though, during his Hollywood tales, he falls into periods of sarcasm, especially when talking about such comedic messes as Greedy and Life With Mikey. The tone here is supposed to be self-deprecating, but often becomes quite bitter, toward himself more than anyone else for spending his remaining years as an actor working below his potential. Fox is much more upbeat when discussing projects of which he is actually proud, like his tremendous turn in Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink The Water” and Rob Reiner’s The American President.

Though he would’ve been forgiven for doing so, Fox never discusses life with PD with even a smattering of sarcasm or bitterness. He often allows his foolishness to appear (at one point asking why he was having to deal with PD: “Don’t I pay someone to take care of this?”), but never does he give his doctors, therapists, colleagues, family and friends anything less than the utmost respect. As a recovering alcoholic, who is unrelentingly professional and sometimes quite difficult, Fox eventually realises that he is his own problem, not simply his condition. It takes him five years to finally come to terms with PD and increase his own understanding of the disease, all the while attempting not to cut himself off from others also working to accept it.

As a learning experience, Lucky Man does so much more than explore Michael J. Fox, the big-time star. It leaves the reader with an insight into Parkinson’s Disease and how one man, someone so many of us grew up watching (Teen Wolf was my very first favorite movie), succeeded in finding himself and his purpose while competing with its unrelenting grip. Along the way, there is laughter and a lot of tears as Fox takes the reader on a slow and honest journey to acceptance of his condition and the discovery of a new purpose away from the silver screen: finding a cure.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/lucky-man/