Our Date Night Movie Hit Too Close to Home
'The Electrical Life of Louis Wain' packed an unexpected punch for an ALS family
Last weekend, my husband, Todd, and I watched the movie “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,” about an eccentric artist in Victorian England. Wain’s comical and endearing illustrations of cats changed people’s perceptions of them and led to them being more accepted as household pets.
From the description, the movie looked like one we would enjoy — based on a true story with quirky characters. And it was indeed a pleasant escape from our life with ALS for the first 40 minutes or so. A man with high social standing finds true love with his sisters’ governess. If the movie were entirely fictional, that could’ve been the whole story. But it wasn’t a storybook romance with a happily-ever-after ending.
The movie was about the entire adult life of Louis Wain, and real lives are messy. His happiness with Emily was cut short by her terminal breast cancer. I didn’t see that coming.
I sometimes choose to watch a movie about terminal illness if it has dark humor or is particularly inspiring. But I usually avoid sad movies. I prefer to use movies to escape the reality of my husband’s terminal illness, but by the time I realized Emily was going to die, I was already invested in the characters.
Even as my eyes welled up with tears, I still had hope for Wain’s life. Shortly after Emily’s diagnosis, he had a realization: “Remembering the past is no different from imagining the future. And neither is different to life itself. I can remember Emily in the future, and she will be there.”
As inspirational as that quote was, the reality of terminal illness hadn’t yet affected his daily life. Lying next to his dying wife, he couldn’t imagine life without her. Wain told Emily that she made the “world beautiful and warm and kind.”
Emily responded, “The world is full of beauty. And it’s up to you to capture it, Louis. To look and to share it with as many people as you can. You are a prism through which that beam of life refracts.”
Emily died, and Wain’s life was upended.
The next hour of the film documented Wain’s decades-long struggle to provide for his sisters as he became increasingly untethered to reality. Even though he was a prolific artist and his works were popular, Wain didn’t copyright his illustrations, so he made little money beyond his initial commissions. His family lost their home to pay off debt. One sister ended up in a mental asylum with schizophrenia. Wain’s mental health deteriorated as well, and he also ended up in an asylum, where he wasn’t allowed outside.
It was a depressing hour.
It wasn’t until the end after Wain had grown quite old that the movie took on a brighter tone. His sisters helped start a fund to move him to a country hospital where he could spend time outside. It’s hard to know if it’s true, but the movie depicts Wain eventually finding peace, sensing Emily’s presence with him.
If there is any good to be found in Wain’s decades of darkness, it was that light came through his whimsical art — often anthropomorphic cats in comical scenes.
Wain might not have sensed it at the time, but something beautiful came out of his life.
“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” hit too close to home.
It’s been a tough 12 years since Todd’s ALS diagnosis, and just as the pacing in the movie felt off because the darkness lasted so long, the sad chapter of our life has lasted a long time. Just as there was no cure for breast cancer in the late 1800s, today there’s no way to fight ALS and beat it. And like Wain, there’s no overcoming grief as my spouse’s health continues to deteriorate.
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