Review

Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist

by Michael J. Fox

Michael J. Fox has been a world-famous actor since bursting onto
the small screen in the 1980s with the popular television series
“Family Ties.” He hit his peak with the Steven
Spielberg-produced Back to the Future trilogy. However,
when he woke up one morning 19 years ago with a hangover and
twitching left pinky finger, he had no idea what new direction his
life would be taking. He was diagnosed then with early-stage
Parkinson’s disease and now wakes up most mornings with the
left pinky finger perfectly still while the rest of his body shakes
uncontrollably. He suffers, additionally, from dystonia, a regular
complement to Parkinson’s that severely cramps his feet,
curling them inward.

At times, it is difficult to separate the cherub-like young
actor who portrayed Alex P. Keaton and Marty McFly from the
47-year-old man stricken with such a horrible, debilitating
disease. With his first memoir, LUCKY MAN, Fox went through his
life leading up to his battle with Parkinson’s. His latest
effort, ALWAYS LOOKING UP, deals specifically with the past 10
years of his life. He has broken the book up into thematic sections
rather than a chronology, which represent the primary driving
forces of his current life: work, politics, faith and family.

In “Work,” Fox talks about his decision to leave his
last regular television series, “Spin City.” He decided
halfway through the fourth season that his physical condition would
not allow him to do a fifth, and even struggled to finish that
difficult fourth. He kept his condition a secret to everyone
involved with the show, though it became obvious to those around
him that something was wrong. He jokes about the condition known as
Parkinson’s Mask that would freeze his face, thereby giving
the appearance of being upset and non-responsive --- personality
traits quite unlike what he usually portrayed. Following
“Spin City” he devoted himself to battling and raising
awareness about Parkinson’s. Ironically, he had to quit his
day job to do his life’s work.

Witnessing other celebrities raising awareness for their own
illnesses --- particularly Lance Armstrong in his battle against
cancer --- pointed Fox in the direction he needed to go. In October
2000, with the assistance of Debi Brooks (formerly of Goldman
Sachs), he formed The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's
Research to raise money for the global treatment of
Parkinson’s. Along with other famous people also stricken
with this disease --- Muhammad Ali, Pope John Paul II, Billy Graham
--- Fox has been able to put a public face on this horrible
disease. The foundation has funded nearly two million dollars,
making it the leading private organization of its kind.

Being a Canadian, Fox was not terribly involved in U.S.
politics. This quickly changed with the formation of his foundation
as he was forced to venture into the political arena to ensure that
proper funding was given to the battle and research of
Parkinson’s. In the Politics section of the book, he
discusses his becoming a spokesman for scientific freedom and stem
cell research. The foundation does not receive any federal funding,
which has allowed him to remain non-partisan. However, the Bush
administration’s strong stance against stem cell research did
not make things easy for him. Fox realized he was knee-deep in a
political battle when the infamous accusations of Rush Limbaugh in
2006 went public regarding Fox’s pro-stem cell commercials
that ran during the World Series. Limbaugh went so far as to call
Fox a “faker” and claimed he purposely refused to take
regular medication in order to look more pathetic on the televised
ad. While never directly receiving an apology, he at least scored a
minor victory when Limbaugh retracted most of his statements
publicly. As Fox puts it: “To characterize hope as some sort
of malady or some kind of flaw of character or national weakness is
really counter to what this country is about.”

With the Faith section, Fox speaks not only to his own faith as
a lapsed Catholic, but to his support of Judaism, the religion of
his wife, Tracy. They have raised their four children under Judaic
guidelines and gave each of them the choice of having a Bar or Bat
Mitzvah; they all decided to go through with this important
transitional ritual. He had become happily immersed in the
community and culture of American Reform Judaism. His first
child’s name, Sam, was appealing because it respected the
faith of his wife. Fox jokes that he has always had a Jewish
influence in his career, and producer Garry Marshall complemented
him on his Jewish timing with comedy. He also points out that the
midwestern WASP character of Alex P. Keaton on “Family
Ties” was largely the creation of a team of Jewish writers
led by Gary David Goldberg from Brooklyn. This section ends with
the sad recollection of the death of his sister, K.C., as the
result of a massive brain hemorrhage. As the family gathered in her
hospital room to say their goodbyes, they were crying, laughing and
singing --- but all had faith!

The final section of the book is entitled “Family.”
The Foxes are blessed with four healthy children --- one son and
three daughters, including a set of twins. Fox indicates that
Parkinson’s is always putting him in a box, and Tracy has
become an expert at folding back the flaps, tipping it over, and
easing him out. The most touching part of this section is when Fox
recounts one of the many road trips his family made across Canada
during his youth --- and the bonding effect this had on everyone.
He then describes what he calls The Great Road Trip of ’97
when he and Sam did a cross-country tour of the U.S. The most
powerful family story is when he describes the impact of 9/11; he
was in California and secured a personal driver to take him all the
way to New York City to be with his family, who had been so close
to Ground Zero on that infamous day.

Fox’s attitude throughout the writing of this memoir is
indeed very optimistic. As a longtime fan of his, it is nice to be
able to see him again on the small screen as part of a four-episode
arc on FX’s “Rescue Me.” ALWAYS LOOKING UP puts
you right inside Fox’s battle and efforts against
Parkinson’s, and constantly reminds you of the most important
things in his life that make this struggle all worthwhile.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on December 22, 2010

Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist
by Michael J. Fox

  • Publication Date: March 30, 2010
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • ISBN-10: 1401310168
  • ISBN-13: 9781401310165