To go on about one's health problems at length and in detail is to depart the comfort zone of ordinary conversation — unseemly, possibly boring, even disgusting. But like many other taboo topics, stories of illness can be aired in memoir much more thoroughly than is tolerated anywhere else. Like the sexual abuse memoir and the grief memoir, the illness memoir has a place on the shelf of this roomy, forgiving and most intimate of genres.
Nevertheless, to run into an illness memoir that one would call "delightful" would seem to be a rare occurrence. Yet I just read two of them in a row. Could this be the start of a trend for delightful illness memoirs? One can only hope. If so, here are the pioneers: "Smile," by playwright Sarah Ruhl, and "Flesh & Blood," by fiction writer N. West Moss.
Ruhl's troubles began at an anxious but hopeful time of her life. "Nerves are tricky for a playwright the week before any opening," she writes "but for Broadway openings, they are nearly impossible. Add being pregnant with twins and feeling like your belly is about to fall through your vagina onto the floor, because your second trimester actually feels like your third trimester, and your third trimester feels like some imagined fourth trimester that can't possibly exist, and what you have is a kind of temporary psychosis."
Don't you love this person already? She was put on bed rest for her last three months, during which she developed a liver condition that made her pregnancy high-risk, leading to constant fetal monitoring. Immediately after she delivered Hope and William, named for the street corner in Providence, R.I., where she and her future husband met, she discovered that the left half of her face had fallen down. She thought she'd had a stroke. Instead, it was Bell's palsy.
As Ruhl chronicles the next decade of her life, we learn just how indispensable the ability to smile is in every human relationship, from the most intimate to the most transitory. During this period she tried myriad treatments and remedies suggested to her by people who invariably had much more abbreviated cases of the syndrome. A major turning point came when she discovered that her current problem and indeed her entire life was profoundly shaped by celiac disease. Ruhl's explanation of celiac is a must-read if you don't understand how serious a problem this is, which most of us don't, associating it with some sort of trendy gluten-free diet.
In chapters with titles like "Three Children Under the Age of Five and Three Kinds of Vomit," "Can You Have Postpartum Depression Two Years After Having Babies?" and "The Neurosurgeon Who Liked Irishwomen," Ruhl takes you with her on a journey that is as much spiritual as it is medical. All the smiles she was missing will likely land on your face. There is a wonderful list of sources and resources at the end, including theater, philosophy, music, medicine and more — reminding us how much richness is seamlessly integrated into the narrative without pretension.
As the book's titles alone would indicate, "Flesh & Blood" is far gorier than "Smile." Still, N. West Moss has a lot in common with Sarah Ruhl. Both do extensive research, both have very supportive husbands, and both have an admirably light touch in describing adversity. Moss' appealing chapters include "The Feral Cat and the French Fries," "Mom's Celery Broth Recipe" and "Checking Under the Hood," the latter describing the routine experience of having a team of doctors standing between her legs, staring into her vagina.
At 52, having dealt with the grief of miscarriage and infertility for a decade, Moss began bleeding. This was no ordinary bleeding — the book opens with a definition of "exsanguination" — and turned out to be the sign of a uterine hemangioma, requiring a complete hysterectomy. A list of "Things to Discuss With My Doctor Before the Hysterectomy" gives some of the flavor of this book.
"How long until I can: Drive / Shower / Have sex / Drink gin / Lie in the hammock / Be annoyed at my neighbor for wearing a Nazi-style motorcycle helmet / Be annoyed at everyone else in the world, like they deserve."
Further down, she wonders "What are the things that can go wrong? / What are the things that can go horribly wrong? / Do you sometimes wish you had just gone to pharmacy school?"
During Moss' long period of healing, relapse and healing again at home in the wooded area of New Jersey where she lives next door to an abbey full of monks, she is cared for by her 84-year-old mother and her kind, ultra-reliable husband. It is he who makes the inspired suggestion, "Hey, what if we just tried to be happy anyway? I mean we can't make the sadness go away, but maybe we can be happy too, at the same time?"
Both books give an encouraging answer to that question.
Marion Winik is a critic in Baltimore and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle.
By: Sarah Ruhl.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 256 pages, $27.
Flesh & Blood
By: N. West Moss.
Publisher: Algonquin Books, 320 pages, $25.95.