Illness memoirs/essays with snowflakes
August 1, 2022 7:14 AM   Subscribe

I loved Molly McCully Brown's Places I've Taken My Body and am looking for similar writing.

I kind of hesitate to call Brown's work an "illness memoir" just because it seems way too complex to fit in that box. She is an amazing writer, and I don't want to suggest that her health issues are the most important thing about her, but she is dealing very frankly with the challenges she faces, and that's what I'm looking for. I'm just using the term "illness memoir" as a general, simplified term. I'm dealing with my own serious illness right now, and I'm trying to figure out how people manage this for years and years.

So I am looking for beautifully written memoirs and essays by people dealing with significant health challenges. It is essential that the writing is good - I ended up not finishing a book by a person with my specific cancer just because it wasn't very well written. For the purposes of this question, I am not looking for books about mental illness (though I certainly recognize that as serious and debilitating). Here are a few other specifics:

1. Illness is not curable, so no "I had this and now I'm fine." Illness should be serious, but may or may not be life threatening.
2. Illness requires continuing treatment that person has to deal with.
3. Person continues working while dealing with illness. "Working" does not have to mean a job. I just don't want to read books by people who could financially just quit working to focus on taking care of themselves.
4. Bonus points for people who are managing without a spouse.

I have read Kate Bowler's Everything Happens for a Reason, Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face, Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air, and Christopher Hitchens' On Mortality.

Biographical work rather than memoir would be fine too, but I don't want to read a 500-page biography of Flannery O'Connor to get to the parts about how she dealt with lupus.

Thank you!
posted by FencingGal to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Patient by Ben Watt - he's best known as half of the group Everything But the Girl but also wrote this excellent, inquisitive book about being hospitalised with chronic illness.

The Night the Lights Went Out by Drew Magary: writer goes into a bar, his brain explodes. Brave, brash.
posted by Gin and Broadband at 7:43 AM on August 1, 2022

What to Look for in Winter: a Memoir of Blindness by Candia McWilliam
posted by Morpeth at 8:03 AM on August 1, 2022

The Beginning of Everything: The Year I Lost my Mind and Found Myself by Andrea Buchanan, nominated for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing in 2019. This memoir chronicles the author's experience with a CSF (spinal fluid) leak and her quest for a diagnosis and treatment.
posted by twelve cent archie at 9:30 AM on August 1, 2022

LifeBlood by Gill Fyffe. She received a blood transfusion contaminated with hepatitis C during the contaminated blood scandal era in the UK, and it took a long time before she got a correct diagnosis.
posted by terretu at 9:36 AM on August 1, 2022

Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

If graphic memoirs/ comics do it for you:
In-Between Days by Teva Harrison
posted by carrioncomfort at 9:39 AM on August 1, 2022

Response by poster: These sound great, and graphic novels are fine (but must be really good). Thanks everyone.

Just want to remind everyone that I am specifically not looking for work by people who recover from their illnesses. I am interested in people who will deal with whatever it is for the rest of their lives.
posted by FencingGal at 10:17 AM on August 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

Elyn Saks's The Center Cannot Hold is a memoir about schizophrenia. Haven't read it, but it's in the pile.

Hilary Mantel writes about her long-undiagnosed endometriosis and thyroid problems at some length in Giving Up the Ghost, though it's not the sole topic.
posted by praemunire at 10:29 AM on August 1, 2022

Oh, yes, there's also Amy Silverstein's Sick Girl, which is about needing a heart transplant and then the grueling life-long implications of that. Note that I was fully prepared for a memoir that wasn't sugar-coated or focused on gratitude for still being alive, etc., but some of her attitudes still took me aback. (The Amazon summary talks about journey to recovery, blah blah, but it is very evident from the first page that she [quite reasonably] experiences life as though she were severely chronically ill.)
posted by praemunire at 10:32 AM on August 1, 2022

It's about disability rather than illness, but Chloé Cooper Jones's Easy Beauty is just an extraordinary book, and many of her experiences with sacral agenesis will be familiar to people with chronic illness (others will be illuminating for anyone in a human body period).
posted by babelfish at 10:40 AM on August 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

Laura Hillenbrand's "A Sudden Illness" (about chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis)
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:43 AM on August 1, 2022

Michael J. Fox’s books deal well and movingly with the topic of living with Parkinson’s. Certainly the most recent one, No Time Like the Future is mostly about that; the first one I think is about 50% “here’s the story of my early showbiz career” but then dives into his Parkinson’s diagnosis and how he dealt with it (badly, initially). I think there are several books, not sure what the middle one/s are like.

Easy to assume that they’ll be fluff because he’s showbiz and because of the slightly trite titles, but he’s clearly someone who’s thought long and deeply about living with illness and disability and writes well on the topic. The last book deals not only with his Parkinson’s but also with undergoing surgery for an (unrelated to the Parkinson’s) spinal tumour, and falling and shattering his arm. Those two are things he eventually recovers from, but obviously the Parkinson’s is incurable and ever-present.

Wrinkles that might not fit what you’re after so much:

He continues working, but could obviously financially choose not to. He obviously has a huge amount of social capital at work because he’s Michael J. Fox but that’s also tempered by the complications of knowing his physical health is very visibly deteriorating in a very public way, in a job where your physical appearance is your currency. So although his work is kind of optional, he kind of can’t ever opt out of Being Michael J. Fox, if you know what I mean, and so has to work out how to navigate that with an obvious progressive illness.

He’s married and has kids and his narrative leans quite a lot on how gratitude for his family is what has sustained him through the rough times, which might be irksome to read if you don’t have that in your life.

Overall, he comes across as likeable and thoughtful and compassionate, though, worth a go, I’d say.
posted by penguin pie at 11:10 AM on August 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

I think I've recced this on metafilter before, but I liked A Still Life. It avoids most of the things I typically don't like about disability or chronic illness memoirs - it's not saccharine or Pollyannaish, it doesn't shy away from admitting this is hard and shit, often more so than it really needs to be. But it's also not hopeless or tragic or pity-pornish. And a big theme in it is how she came to accommodate the idea that she was never going to be well, and she had to find a way to have a life that was acceptable to her anyway. I liked it a lot.
posted by BlueNorther at 12:10 PM on August 1, 2022

The author Judy Goldman has an excellent memoir about her husband's medical mishap called Together. The story of their marriage and the eventual medical issue he faced and how it effected their relationship.
posted by zzazazz at 3:48 PM on August 1, 2022

Christina Crosby's A Body, Undone. With the caveat that she was one of my favorite English professors, she's an amazing writer.
posted by gingerbeer at 1:48 PM on August 3, 2022

This is an interview/profile rather than a personal essay, but I know a lot of Mefites love Susanna Clarke's novels, so I wanted to recommend this longform interview in which she talks a little about dealing with chronic fatigue syndrome. I had no idea until I read it that that was why there hadn't been a follow up to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell for so long.
posted by fire, water, earth, air at 11:23 PM on August 3, 2022

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