To outsiders, Emily Rapp Black seemed to have overcome the death of her son and dissolution of her first marriage through finding a new partner and getting pregnant. “Congratulations!” they exclaimed. “You’re so strong and brave!” These sentiments, though well-meaning, haunted their recipient. At one point, Black did not want to communicate with anyone who had not recently lost a child. “There are few people who can go to that place with me,” she said while on tour for her second book, The Still Point of the Turning World, which explores the illness of her son, Ronan. Sanctuary, Black’s third book, probes the concept of resilience, extracting it from dewy notions of rebirth and foregrounding the enduring pain of life after trauma.
Taking cues from the history of the word resilience—including the natural processes of butterflies (resin in their wings enables them to fly) and Viking ship construction (resilient ships were the ones that could absorb small wrecks)—Black ultimately aims to shed the shallow and damaging notions of resilience that outsiders continually tried to stick onto her story. To combat the lonely feelings that arose in response to these words, Black did the only thing that felt natural: She wrote about her experiences and researched everything she could find, scouring history, the natural sciences and, inevitably, self-help.
In all, Black offers a memoir of the dear grief she bears for her son, sharing, for example, what she did with the clippings from his only haircut. At the same time, she details her intense feelings of new love and the elated exhaustion of early parenthood. When Black’s daughter, Charlie, was born, she was a joy and a balm. And Charlie, now a toddler, seems to know better than most about the hole that exists in their family, about a brother who is missing and the mother who deeply and steadfastly loves both of her children.
If you are someone feeling a hurt that will never go away, someone who would be affirmed and comforted by real stories of people moving forward while wounded, then Black’s new memoir will be a balm to you, too.