Who am I really?

Reflections on dementia and childhood

Unwinding after a day at a meeting of Synod, where I had kept some of my opinions tactfully to myself, I slumped in front of the TV and saw the comedian and writer David Baddiel interviewed by Jonathan Ross. I had recently read a shorter version of an article by Baddiel that had appeared in the Sunday Times in February. This ‘coincidence’ is explained by the fact that he has a new stand-up show opening in London next month.

What fascinated me about both the interview and the article is how open David Baddiel is about his father’s dementia. In a world where many of our old taboos are being shattered, it seems that talking about dementia can still be difficult. Baddiel knows that and feels he needs to speak out.

Colin Brian Baddiel – to give him his full name for, though he requires 24-hour care and no longer recognises his son, he is still a person – suffers from Pick’s disease. This is a form of dementia quite different from Alzheimer’s disease, and one symptom is the breakdown of inhibitions. When David writes that his father is rude, lecherous and irreverent, he does so with what seems to me to be that triumph of love over disapproval with which we imagine God sees all of us.

David says that the obscenity-loving, eager to shock, aggressive-jokey side of his father’s character was always the “dominant voice” which he allowed to countervail the intellectualism of having a PhD in chemistry. In his case, unusually, dementia has not dismantled his personality but enhanced one aspect of it. David finds himself apologising for his father simply, though perhaps one-dimensionally, being himself.
David Baddiel realises that his father may not approve of him writing in this way; but he has no prospect of finding out. That is a dilemma every dementia carer eventually faces, balancing respect for the patient with their own need to be understood. This deserves pastoral awareness.

But there is more. Good parenting involves teaching children how to curb their impulses and behave in socially acceptable ways. Yet, in conforming to the world and becoming ‘good’, I wonder what healthy parts of my inner child have been suppressed: creativity, spontaneity, wonder and trust. It would be a shame if I have to get dementia to be fully myself. So, who am I really? Would you like me if you knew? What would God think?

Peter Henderson