On Tuesday, Springfield College welcomed Professor of English at the Springfield College School of Professional and Continuing Studies at Boston Campus, Sherri VandenAkker, as the screening of her documentary, “My Name Was Bette: The Life and Death of An Alcoholic” was displayed in the townhouse conference room. The feature film dissected alcoholism, specifically in women, and chronicled the disease’s effect on VandenAkker’s late mother Bette. It is a story that VandenAkker described as “harder to live, but easier to tell.”
Alcoholism in women. When one thinks of alcoholism they tend to think of men. The picture of the issue in the mind’s eye always seems to trace back to a male subject, whether it is referring to cinema, self-depictions of history or recollections of reality. But alcoholism in females is a stone that should be turned over, an issue that should be noticed. Yet it is still under examined.
The female body has a slower metabolism rate and a weaker resistance to alcohol. Yet alcoholism does not discriminate between male and female. With this being said, this disease poses a major threat to the female body, as large and chronic consumptions of alcohol over a long period of time prove to be devastating. The body of a woman in a sense has less defense as well as high and rapid susceptibility to the crippling effects, such as damage to the liver and digestive tract. The statistics from the film confirm the afflictions. The death toll of alcoholic women is significantly higher in comparison to alcoholic men. VandenAkker says that, in the sense of marriages, nine out of ten women with alcoholic husbands stay with their spouses and have a high risk of conforming to such lifestyle, while one out of ten men stay with an alcoholic wife.
The story of Bette VandenAkker puts all of this into perspective, and it is devastatingly sad. VandenAkker deteriorates from a woman her peers describe as a beautiful to someone who was sickly, frail, and emotionally shattered. In the film, Sherri VandenAkker’s sister Krystyn White makes the heart wrenching declaration that her mother cared about alcohol more so than her. But Sherri believes that the disease simply overpowered her mother.
The beginning itself is what is particularly impactful. There is the powerful title: “My Name Was Bette” and then there is the documentary’s introduction that is “The End,” the end of VandenAkker’s life. There is the explanation of isolation of VandenAkker from her family for almost 16 years as a result of shame and disgrace due to alcoholism. Sherri VandenAkker believes that stigma killed her mother.
“My mother told me when I was 23 that she knew that she would die an alcoholic,” said VandenAkker. “She didn’t want to get sober because she did not want to face what she had done.”
For Bette VandenAkker, alcoholism was triggered by a lifelong trend of stress, and constant waves of depression, which were a result of the loss of her family members throughout her life (her father’s death, her sister’s death, and her daughters moving out).
The film employed despair. It was saddening and sobering. Yet there was somewhat of a beauty to it, as the documentary intent is to also offer sincere hope for alcoholics as well as their families and friends in their attempts to heal any pain and damaged relationships. Though she was a victim of a horrific disease, her daughters Sherri VandenAkker and White described Bette VandenAkker as, to certain extents, a feminist. During her life, she was independent, her own person and separated herself from society’s expectations. Though she was harmed by alcoholism (which was considered dishonorable for a woman), she also ended her marriage when there was no mobility with it, and raised her two daughters on her own, and in both of these cases going against norms and expectations.
Babson Library owns a copy of this documentary and it is available on Amazon. It is a powerful look into what is beyond the short term image of alcohol, and deeper dimensions of the disease that is alcoholism.