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I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death

Review

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death

The title and epigraph for Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir is from Sylvia Plath’s THE BELL JAR: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am. I am. I am.” O’Farrell embraces Plath’s confidence, real or imagined, as she recounts 16 moments in her life when she escaped death. “Daughter (The Present Day),” the 17th and final story, is part miracle and part agony, in the description of her daughter’s birth and then the disfiguring eczema that enveloped the baby. Her accounts are deeply personal, and she creates an exquisitely detailed picture of the strong, vibrant leading woman she is today, along with the many supporting members of the cast.

O’Farrell’s descriptions of the pain she felt when she first contracted encephalitis at age eight are fierce and original: “so severe, so pure, that it was as if someone was sounding a high soprano chord somewhere behind my eyes…. my skull was a balloon overfilled with water.” This is the next-to-last piece in the memoir, and she explains that the time she spent in the hospital is “the hinge on which my childhood swung.” She was one child before and quite another afterward. She overheard a nurse explaining in a too-loud voice outside her room that she was the little girl who was dying, and she recounts those moments in one of her novels. She learned to listen, as well as read the looks among the adults peering at her --- over her bed, beside her in the car, at dinner tables.

"[O’Farrell’s] accounts are deeply personal, and she creates an exquisitely detailed picture of the strong, vibrant leading woman she is today, along with the many supporting members of the cast."

Almost all of the chapters are titled by part of the anatomy, including “Lungs” and “Circulatory System.” However, the first piece, “Neck,” is not really about O’Farrell’s neck; it is about the violence she feels in a fellow traveler on an isolated path. She senses the planning that is occurring in the man’s mind as he glances at her legs and arms. She is surprised by the familiar act of his putting the strap of his binoculars around her neck, but then he shows her the ducks on the pond. She chatters her way away. However, she reports him to the local police who hold their laughter but not their disdain: “Sounds terrifying. Terrible.” She is unhappily vindicated about the dangers of this man after a few weeks. Years later, she makes an unspoken promise to her young daughter that she will find the words to tell her that some people want to hurt her.

O’Farrell identifies some saviors, seraphs in disguise, who remain unnamed, but who stand on the periphery of her life, generally in hospital rooms, but in waiting rooms and airports as well. She senses rather than knows that she has been protected. In the case of one television personality who visited her when she was very small, she learns years later that the celebrity’s visits were not innocent. He was a predator, but one of the nurses who kept her hair in a tidy brown bun stayed her watch and did not leave when he asked her. She was the knight in a white dress and hat.

“Abdomen” chronicles the botched C-section of her first baby and how the arrogance of Mr. C nearly killed her. “Intestines” is a gripping story of an incredibly resilient parasite she contracted in China, and how her cache of American dollars moved her to the head of the line for care. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the care was medication usually prescribed for horses. She survived.

O’Farrell explains to an early boyfriend why she does what she does --- what happened to her as a child --- and he parroted what most people do: You were so unlucky. She surprises him. Not true. She did not die, she writes and walks and swims, she is wheelchair-free, she attended normal public schools. The limitations that might have been her life are replaced by glowing independence, endurance and creativity. She has found a crock of gold at every rainbow’s end.

Reviewed by Jane Krebs on March 9, 2018

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death
by Maggie O'Farrell

  • Publication Date: February 6, 2018
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0525520228
  • ISBN-13: 9780525520221