Memoirs of Inspiration – by Charlotte Canelli

Read Charlotte Canelli’s column in the February 1, 2013 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

I am a reader of memoirs. Many times I read them to see the world through another lens. Sometimes I read them to experience a life I’ve never lived. Most of them I find compelling and intriguing.

I’m certainly not the only one reading memoirs. The memoir genre has been increasing in popularity in the past twenty years. “Angela’s Ashes” (Frank McCourt 1996), “Under the Tuscan Sun” (Frances Mayes 1996), “A Walk in the Woods” (Bill Bryson, 1998), “Eat, Pray, Love” (Elizabeth Gilbert 2006) and “Three Cups of Tea” (Greg Mortenson 2006) are just a few of the blockbuster memoirs that still sell in hardcover and paperback and are checked out from libraries across the country.

This week four memoirs appeared on the nonfiction hardcover bestseller lists in the New York Times – “My Beloved World” by Sonia Sotomayor, “No Easy Day” by Mark Owen, “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed and “My Share of the Task” by Stanley McChrystal. In addition, “Proof of Heaven”, a memoir about a neurosurgeon’s near-death experience, tops the paperback non-fiction list this week. There are still hundreds of requests in the Minuteman Library System for the hardcover edition of “Proof of Heaven” and it was published months ago.

Why do memoirs appeal to so many readers? Perhaps it is so we can make sense of our own lives. Reading about someone else’s sadness or hope, loneliness or triumph can heal or motivate us. Through memoirs we learn about human experiences that we might encounter along our journey called life.

Perhaps, too, in this era of individuality, we connect with other lives through reading the details of another memory or another relationship. How many of us live in neighborhoods where we might never encounter our neighbors except the comings and goings along the driveways? How many of use drive-through banks when years ago we chatted with friends in the line? How many more of us shop online and never meet others in stores?

For whatever reason, memoirs are selling. I recently read that publishers are accepting more memoirs from new authors than they accept from new authors of fiction.

Personally, I find memoirs unforgettable. The stories stay with me and I sometimes talk about them or recommend them for years. Two memoirs that I found particularly compelling in the past few years are both by women who suffered medical emergencies. Each is a story of loss, survival and triumph and each is inspiring and intriguing.

Jill Bolte Taylor was a 37-year old graduate of Harvard working as a neuroanatomist in 1996 when she suffered a massive stroke, or severe hemorrhage, in the left hemisphere of her brain. Her amazing story was published in 2006 as “My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey”. After reading her story it seems amazing that she recovered all of her functions and her ability to work and think. She had to learn to walk and talk again. She worked incredibly hard (with the help of her mother) to read and write and conquered both skills.

In 2008, Dr. Taylor gave an amazing presentation at the TED Conference in California. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is an organization that meets across the world in many venues to spread ideas. Videos of these presentations, hundreds per year, are available for free on TED.com. Taylor’s 18 minute presentation became the second most watched TED talk and has had over 10,262,000 views.

It was perhaps ironic that Taylor’s passion prior to her stroke was researching the brain. She wrote to tell about it from an extremely unique perspective. Not only did Jill Bolte Taylor recover fully from her stroke but she shared her entire experience, from the scary onset while getting ready for a busy day at work through to her full recovery over eight years.

What was particularly surprising to Taylor was that she witnessed a disconnection from body and brain in ways that she would not have predicted or understood before her experience. She describes in detail these soaring spiritual moments in her book.

Susannah Cahalan (Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, 2012) was an overachieving and successful 24- year old reporter for the New York Post in 2009 when her life began to spin out of control. Her ordeal was a sudden change over a few weeks that included strange numbness, sensitivity to light, paranoia and erratic behavior. Her terrified family and friends were at a loss and it was equally horrifying to a helpless Susannah. After suffering frightening seizures, she was finally admitted to the epilepsy unit of a New York City hospital where her symptoms puzzled and confused a battery of specialists.

Towards the end of her month-long hospital stay it was discovered, quite by accident, that Susannah was suffering from a rare autoimmune disease (anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis) that can attack the brain. The disease was aggressively treated with something similar to chemotherapy and Susannah slowly recovered.

Susannah had few memories of the month-long experience after the onset of her most severe symptoms. She compiled the information for her memoir from videotapes taken of her on the epilepsy ward and the testimony of her friends and family, particularly her loving boyfriend. Some of the questions that Cahalan’s book asks are why it took the medical specialists so long to diagnose her, why there is little dissemination of medical research for these kinds of rare diseases and how many others suffered before her might have been committed to mental institutions for the rest of their lives.

If you need help finding these inspiring memoirs or others like it, please call or visit the Morrill Memorial Library.

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