Rebecca's Reviews > The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease

The Sanctuary of Illness by Thomas Larson
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bookshelves: memoirs, illness-and-death, read-via-netgalley

An unusual medical memoir: lyrical and very consciously literary. Thomas Larson developed angina and had three heart attacks over the course of five years; he was treated with angioplasties and six stents. It was ironic that he had been a vegetarian since 1984, but still had extremely high cholesterol, which he attributed to eating cheese, eggs and milk; he is now an oil-free (!) vegan. However, heart disease was also a family curse, a sort of “genetic nihilism” snaking down from his father, mother and brother (it also, ironically, affected his partner Suzanna’s son). “But aren’t we more than our generational stamp, more than the blot of an incident?” he plaintively asks. “Of course we are. But that’s not how we’re seen. The public me is the one who fell.” (Larson’s mother, he recalls, was afraid not of death, but of dying in public.)

This could have just been a clinical rundown of procedures and statistics, but instead Larson turns his ordeal into high art. Here is his wonderful description of his ecstatic response upon waking up from his first surgery: “This grandest of moments is mine. I’m being wheeled to recovery. I’m being delivered to my last act—and my last act has met me more than halfway. I’m enthralled by this feral feeling…before it passes, I need to make sure someone else knows I can name it…‘I’m in Nirvana—’ I say.” His nurses didn’t particularly appreciate his poetic take; he, too, soon realized that “I got through my heart attack, a dubious achievement, after which I’m rewarded the non-refundable prize, a heart condition.” Larson never succumbs to self-pity, but approaches his condition with both determination and levity.

The book reminded me most of One Hundred Names for Love by Diane Ackerman, or Eating Pomegranates by Sarah Gabriel, in that it doesn’t just focus on the individual experience of illness but on the wider circles of people it touches – as in Ackerman’s case, it has a big effect on his relationship with Suzanna. It was interesting to see that (according to the acknowledgements) Larson deliberately modeled his book after two memoirs I really love, Half a Life by Darin Strauss and The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso. I also spotted hints of the kind of raw Shakespearean language Christopher Rush uses in his memoirs (e.g. To Travel Hopefully , one of my absolute favorites), such as this description of urination: “[I] rearrange my carcass sideways to aim from my shriven member a righteous stream.”

(Others have noted the uncomfortably erotic passages about Larson’s relationship with Suzanna, so I will simply record that I thought they were entirely unnecessary and indulgent.)

“Art says we have not died untidy deaths, though most of us will,” Larson declares. Although Rumi wrote that “The cure for the pain is in the pain,” still Larson holds out hope that “writing my illness may help heal it.”
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Reading Progress

March 8, 2014 – Started Reading
March 8, 2014 – Shelved
March 10, 2014 – Shelved as: memoirs
March 10, 2014 – Shelved as: illness-and-death
March 10, 2014 – Shelved as: read-via-netgalley
March 31, 2014 – Finished Reading

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