Writing as a Witness to One’s Own Disease
It’s absurd to complain about having too much to read. I know that. But, as guilty as this admission makes me, I sometimes prefer when people tell me NOT to read certain books. That type of anti-recommendation doesn’t bloat my constantly growing list.
Invariably, when someone tells me you’ve got to read this I can’t help but groan and anticipate how disappointed that person will be when, months later, I still haven’t followed through with his or her suggestion. These situations are even more anxiety-inducing when you’ve got to read this is paired with an actual copy of the book, presented as a loan or gift. This anxiety, that I’ll fail to live up to being a guy who reads a lot is a problem I’m trying to get over. Reading isn’t a race, I can still hear my third grade teacher say, but when staring down a long line of you’ve got to read this titles, I can’t help but feel like I’m just flipping pages to cross items off a list.
Once or twice this summer I managed to shorten my recommended reading response time, and dive right into a book after it was handed to me. One of these occasions was when a friend passed on a copy of Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air.
This book, released to substantial acclaim in January of this year, details the author’s journey as a neurosurgery resident who learns, nearly a year before completing his extensive training, that tumors have spread through his lungs, liver and spine. In the opening of his book, he flatly describes his opponent as, “Cancer, widely disseminated.”
Throughout his narrative Dr. Kalanithi, in turn, disseminates his cancer for his readers. He offers much more than just clinical language and tackles the experience of living under the penumbra of his proximal death.
Dr. Kalanithi had considered the questions he contends with in his memoir far before his cancer diagnosis. Initially a student of letters, Kalanithi completed his undergrad degree as a literature major before earning a philosophy masters. During his study of philosophy, he decided that to solve real human questions, he needed to first understand our machinery, the brain, the tool we use to make meaning.
The book offers readers a way into to Kalanithi’s own mind, a mind he spent a decade sharpening into an instrument of medical mastery. That same mind is forced to turn in other directions as Kalanithi considers the ramifications of becoming a father, of continuing to perform surgery, of planning for the future with his wife, now that cancer has steeped this future in uncertainty.
This type of exploration, one that aims to cast light on illness-induced suffering, a type of suffering often endured alone, is not an uncommon one in memoir. Whether we classify these works as illness narratives, or with the moniker “sick lit,” writing as witness to one’s disease is an established pursuit. Some of the more well known in the genre include, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the account of a French magazine editor and victim of a paralyzing stroke, and Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face.
The illness narratives I’m most familiar with are works that focus people suffering with chronic mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. These works provide windows into the compromised minds of their authors. In one of the most widely read of these memoirs, Kay Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, Jamison details the frenetic energy of her florid mania and the depths of her suicidal depression as she battles bipolar disorder. Jamison renders what is unknowable to most readers, the struggle she endures wrestling with her ill mind, in order to provide access to a type of invisible suffering. At their core, all of these illness narratives aim to illuminate the type of invisible suffering that Jamison encounters. Approaches vary, and some recent works like Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir, Marbles, use images to give shape to the invisible manifestations of serious mental illness.
Kalanithi’s book details a physical disintegration, but his body’s battle with cancer is also largely a struggle of the mind. This struggle makes joining his tragic journey feel mandatory. When the reader is forced to face the weight of Kalanithi’s diagnosis and contend with the questions this reality presents, we become witnesses to a type of suffering most are blissfully unfamiliar with. We can’t help but pay attention – as the New York Times review of Kalanithi’s work concludes, “finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option.”
Kalanithi’s book, published after his death, is impossible to forget because it achieves what the best illness narratives achieve. They triumph not because their authors are healed, but because these writers disseminate and explicate a type of suffering that remains ineffable for most readers.
Vince Granata is a staff editor at Café Américain and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.