Seeing Where an Author’s Life and Fiction Intersect
I love it when novelists publish autobiographical non-fiction. I love to see where their real lives intersect with the stories they make up. Thus, after reading a few books by Maggie O’Farrell, I was excited to read I Am, I Am, I Am. Its subtitle is Seventeen Brushes with Death, a Memoir. I guess even without her fiction – the best of which was Hamnet – I would have been interested in someone with so many brushes with death.
There are two very major stories O’Farrell shares in this book.
The first involves the author’s near-death experience with encephalitis at age eight. It left her with cerebellar damage and ataxia. She tells us she can’t walk a straight line, balance on one foot, or orient herself among objects. She tells us she carries a lot of bruises from encounters with bookcases and door jambs. She tells us her left arm is pretty useless.
The second major story involves the author’s third child who was born with an immunology disorder. Her immune system underreacts to some things and overreacts to others. A common cold may require hospitalization, a ventilator, and a drip. On average, the daughter suffers allergic reactions with varying degrees of severity 12-15 time a year. The brother of this child was taught at age six to dial the phone for emergency help and to say into the receiver the sentence, “This is an emergency case of anaphylaxis.” Clearly, the family lives “in a state of high alert.”
Between these two tales, there are fifteen other brushes with death. All were described in such gorgeous language that I want to sign up to read everything O’Farrell has ever written including her grocery list.
BUT at the same time, some of her other near misses had me wondering. She nearly drowns three different times. The first time, this woman who tells us she can’t always orient herself among objects, loses her sense of which way is up when she jumps into the harbor at night. OK, a friend rescued her. Lesson learned, right? Then why is she swimming in the ocean by herself and getting caught up in a riptide? Did she forget about her left arm that is pretty useless? And if that wasn’t enough, years later when she waded into the ocean with her toddler son, planning to walk out to a platform some distance from the shore, why didn’t she turn around when the water got too deep and head back to the beach?
Explaining some of this, the author tells us, “Coming so close to death as a young child, only to resurface again into life, imbued in me for a long time a brand of recklessness, a cavalier or even crazed attitude to risk. It could, I see, have gone the other way, and made me into a person hindered by fear, hobbled by caution.”
In the end, all of her life experiences made her into the person and writer she is today. I have read three of her books and now I have a better understanding of them.
This is where her life and fiction intersect:
- The Hand that First Held Mine – In this book the mother almost dies in childbirth. Almost bleeding out during the birth of her first child is one of the seventeen near death experiences O’Farrell shares with us.
- Instructions for a Heat Wave – A difficult child causes lots of struggles for a family, indeed the impact of having children seems to be a main topic of the book.
- Hamnet – The most tragic of tragedies is explored here, the death of a child as told from the mother’s point of view.
As I said at the start, I love it when novelists publish autobiographical non-fiction. Plain and simple, such insider information enriches their fiction.