October 2008

Memoirs chart paths to surviving trouble in mind and body

By David Lovelace
By Roxanne Black
By Gail Konop Baker
Review by
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Television producer, director and writer Christopher Lukas (Silent Grief) and his Pulitzer Prize – winning journalist brother J. Anthony Lukas were haunted by "the old depressive devil" their entire lives, a tragic family legacy explored in Blue Genes: A Memoir of Loss and Survival. Raised in a wealthy family outside New York, Kit and Tony led a charmed life of private lakes and frog chases, lavish parties and boarding school. Then, their mother committed suicide and the young brothers faced a lifetime of abandonment, as their aunt and then their uncle also took their own lives and their father disappeared into alcoholism. Lukas details his turbulent relationship with Tony as they both search for love, creative work and emotional salvation – then his beloved brother is found dead by his own hand, and Lukas is forced to deal with the familiar torrent of anger, guilt, confusion, self – pity and bitterness that dogs him even as he finds solace and love with writer wife Susan and their children and grandchildren. A heartrending envoi notes that Susan died unexpectedly as the book was being published, and once again, Lukas grieves, learns to "throw the shoe at the wall," and survive.

David Lovelace's struggle with manic depression in Scattershot: My Bipolar Family presents the agonizing, discomfiting – and transcendent – aspects of brain disorder. One of three children born to an artist mother and preacher father both suffering with mental illness, Lovelace was a teen before his genetic predisposition blew up in his face. His run from his fate, family and his scattered mind are difficult to read, let alone live through; roaming South America trying to decide his future, he gets word that his younger brother has been committed to a mental institution. Sent spiraling into a series of manic breaks, Lovelace later ends up committed at the same time as his brother and father. Now wearing a "chemical straight jacket," Lovelace embraces his "astonished mind," falls in love, marries, takes over a failing used bookstore, starts a family and begins to articulate a future where madness isn't waiting in the wings.

Control and certainty evaporate when health is challenged. Roxanne Black navigates that uncertainty cheerfully, along with college, dating and other milestones, after being diagnosed with the chronic (and sometimes fatal) autoimmune disease lupus as a teen, giving herself daily dialysis with a catheter tube stuffed under her clothes. Unexpected Blessings: Finding Hope and Healing in the Face of Illness is her elegant exploration of thriving with chronic illness and other extraordinary circumstances. After surviving a kidney transplant, she founded Friends' Health Connection, a national patient advocacy organization now celebrating its 20th anniversary. Heartfelt anecdotes from Black's life, and experiences of fellow patients, her friends and famous supporters including Dr. Mehmet Oz, Oliver Sacks and Elizabeth Edwards, bolster ruminations on the art of compassion and listening, the grace of gratitude and "ordinary" courage, the blessings of synchronicity and random acts of kindness, making connections and "being of use," lending perspective to the daily stress of chronic conditions.

Former columnist Gail Konop Baker blasts through illness with expectations blazing in Cancer Is a Bitch (Or, I'd Rather Be Having a Midlife Crisis). Baker is served a fat dollop of irony when – right after she finishes a novel about a woman who finds a lump in her breast and wonders if she's lived a meaningful life – she finds herself sitting in a hospital gown facing a breast cancer diagnosis. She longs to be the Audrey Hepburn of the Big C, but instead she careens through mental and emotional aftershocks that fiction couldn't predict. Gobbling organic produce, practicing yoga and weighing Hobson's choices, Baker courageously places her screwed – up childhood, imperfect marriage, motherhood and sanity under the microscope even as her "good cancer" diagnosis follows her everywhere "like an annoying sibling, mimicking my every move, mirroring the parts of me that make me feel awkward, ashamed." Her guts, and affection for the occasional joke, toke and profanity, make her a deeply consoling companion on a frightening journey.


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