“Joe O’Brien is a forty-four-year-old police officer from the Irish Catholic neighborhood of Charlestown, Massachusetts. A devoted husband, proud father of four children in their twenties, and respected officer, Joe begins experiencing bouts of disorganized thinking, uncharacteristic temper outbursts, and strange, involuntary movements. He initially attributes these episodes to the stress of his job, but as these symptoms worsen, he agrees to see a neurologist and is handed a diagnosis that will change his and his family’s lives forever: Huntington’s Disease.
Huntington’s is a lethal neurodegenerative disease with no treatment and no cure. Each of Joe’s four children has a 50 percent chance of inheriting their father’s disease, and a simple blood test can reveal their genetic fate. While watching her potential future in her father’s escalating symptoms, twenty-one-year-old daughter Katie struggles with the questions this test imposes on her young adult life. Does she want to know? What if she’s gene positive? Can she live with the constant anxiety of not knowing?
As Joe’s symptoms worsen and he’s eventually stripped of his badge and more, Joe struggles to maintain hope and a sense of purpose, while Katie and her siblings must find the courage to either live a life ‘at risk’ or learn their fate.”
Thoughts on the Novel: Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova explores the devastation a simple diagnosis can cause for an entire family for generations past, present, and future. Through Joe and his daughter Katie, readers get insight into the mindset of one who has Huntington’s and one who could get it. The entire family faces enormous emotional strain as they come to grips with their individual mortality and wrestle with the idea of living in the moment with a fatal prognosis.
It is as emotionally tough a novel as one would expect. The whole family cycles between the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and the reader experiences all of it. Similarly, Joe’s and Katie’s internal battles on living with the diagnosis or the potential of one are brutal, forcing readers to confront one’s mortality alongside the O’Brien family.
Ms. Genova presents many facts about Huntington’s, and some of this does get slightly repetitive. However, given the physicality of the symptoms, there is a need for this repetition. One cannot stress enough the importance of patience and understanding when meeting someone struggling with involuntary movements or spasms because one never knows the reason behind them. More importantly, it is vital to remember that such a person still has feelings and can feel shame and embarrassment in such situations.
Through Joe and Katie, Inside the O’Briens puts a face onto a rare but devastating neurological disease. It is fair to say they put a face onto any neurological disease as they struggle to deal with the impending changes in behavior, lifestyle, finances, and pretty much everything else. It is a sobering picture of aging, but the O’Briens are the type of family to do so with dignity and love.