The short story of Stephen Hawking is something we all know. Diagnosed with motor neuron disease at the age of 21 and three years left to live, he married his mistress Jane, had three children and became – despite increasingly severe disabilities and many health crises – a pioneering physicist and cosmologist. He was also a member of the Royal Society, the Lucasian Mathematics Professor at Cambridge (a seat of Newton), and a world-famous author and celebrated public figure, having written the bestselling A Brief History of Time. He died in 2018 at the age of 76.
One could easily fill a documentary with stories of one’s genius. What, Hawking: can you hear me? (Sky Documentaries) took on the trickier job of shedding light on the man and examining what it took of him and all of those around that hyper-focused, hyper-competitive mind to accomplish everything he did.
It was as much a portrait – detailed and compassionate – of the effects of severe disability on marriage and family as anything else. Jane, his wife for 30 years, was interviewed at length and gave a silent glimpse into the psychological toll that caring for an increasingly incapacitated spouse who did not talk about his illness and only accepted outside help when it came to survival.
Their children were also interviewed extensively. “I knew my father the whole time, that he was 24 hours away from death,” said Lucy, who was born seven years after his diagnosis. The youngest son, Tim, was six years old when Hawking lost the ability to speak. When his father got the speech synthesizer, he remembered that it was “a golden era of communication for us,” despite waiting for answers after every child’s question. “You never really knew what to do with yourself!” Robert remembered that his father could still go upstairs with assistance, but it was hard to get his attention (“how many fathers, I take an ”) when (unlike most of the fathers) he was deep in thought about quantum mechanics and general relativity and the prospect, enticingly close to his extraordinary mind, of uniting the two to form a mathematical theory to explain the universe to accomplish.
This delicately intelligent film also asked how much indulgence we should and should give to exceptional minds. The picture Hawking painted contained quite an air of selfishness, but it also invited viewers to ponder how much of it was innate and how much was a product of his physical circumstances. It was up to us to decide how much Jane was struck out of his story even as it unfolded (for example, when he became a member of the Royal Society, Hawking thanked his superiors and colleagues but did not mention them and his children) Result of his own sexism, his social mores or the simple lack of appreciation of what it took to get him from conference to international conference safely. Perhaps a level of denial is a vital protective measure, even if it upsets those you love so much?
Perhaps it was mostly a study of love. About young love and how it can lead you into a marriage that, according to doctors, will last a few years at best. How it can change and still persist when these parameters change. How it can be denied when duty calls. Over the years, Jane fell in love, wearied and depressed, from the unbearable pressures that Hawking’s growing fame, workload, travel, and disability placed on her family. They refused to be in a relationship for Hawking’s sake for years.
It was also a study of how a child’s love remains untouched by the father’s inability to throw a frisbee, but can get a hammer blow from the family’s apostasy. Hawking moved out on Christmas Day (“I thought – still think – that was unnecessarily brutal,” Lucy said cautiously; one of the many moments that underscored what an accidentally beautiful illustration the program was of a certain kind of English) with one being together his nurses, Elaine Mason. Their relationship lasted more than a decade, despite her concerns about her controlling personality and attitudes towards him. They divorced him after a police investigation into their alleged abuse, both of which have always denied. Hawking refused to file a complaint and no charges were brought against Mason. He, Jane, and the children made a rapprochement and got along well when he died.
It was a beautiful, beautiful film that answered a lot and evoked more, gave its place to genius and the unsung heroes – finally – some of them.