On the mass appeal of life-altering memoirs: Why stories of crisis are so hot right now
Call it crisis porn, if you will.
These books are memoirs, but not just any memoirs; they aren’t musings on a successful career or funny tales of sexual exploits or a nostalgic retelling of a romance. They are haunting stories of lives stopped in their tracks by unfortunate and often unthinkable occasions. They are memoirs that have to be read to be believed.
Like what happened to Maggie O’Farrell, a British author who nearly died during childbirth. Who was in labor for three days with a pain she describes in her new book I Am, I Am, I Am as if her body was trying to turn itself inside out. Who was finally given a C-section only after begging the hospital consultants but not before the constant pressure crushed the baby’s ear so severely as to require plastic surgery. Whose resulting C-section went so wrong that the only way to describe her condition is inside-out — if you get the gist. Who nearly bled out while the surgeons were trying to put her intestines back together.
See? Crisis porn.
These at-times terrifying (and occasionally even bordering on morbid) memoirs are gaining momentum and popularity almost faster than can be tracked. In a time when pop culture is trying to feed a hunger for the stories of more than just the men whose stories have always been told, these books are offering themselves up. The national best-seller lists are filled with them, forming a genre all their own of women who have completely jarring, life-altering things happen to them, things that most of us can’t even begin to imagine or relate to.
There was Ariel Levy, the reporter on assignment in Mongolia, who gave birth to her baby four months early on the floor of her dingy hotel room and almost bled out while she was deciding what to do with what was, for a brief moment, her son (The Rules Do Not Apply).
There was Susannah Cahalan, who, just starting out her career at a big New York newspaper, found herself restrained to a hospital bed for what would be labeled a violent psychotic break, with no recollection of how she got there and no idea how she came to descend into madness (Brain on Fire).
There was, before both of those, Joan Didion, whose husband quite literally dropped dead of a heart attack days after her daughter was placed on life support (The Year of Magical Thinking).
I Am, I Am, I Am, out today, is framed as Seventeen Brushes With Death. It details all of the ways in which O’Farrell has narrowly escaped with her life, from a remote countryside encounter with a crazed hiker to a South American robbery-by-machete to several near-drownings, to the aforementioned C-section. On top of all that, O’Farrell suffered a disastrous bout of encephalitis as a child and is currently raising a daughter with a terrifying (and deadly) immune disorder. It’s easy to wonder what you might have in common with an author who has encountered nearly everything that can go wrong in a life, but it’s probably the fact that the revelations she’s come to are so relatable that makes this genre so popular.
These crisis memoirs are best-sellers partly because of the opportunity to gawk. We stare at these situations the way we do a gnarly car accident or a parent trying to wrangle a wild toddler temper tantrum: With morbid fascination and an overwhelming sense of relief that it’s not you.
Sometimes it’s just a freaking compelling narrative, a page-turner in every sense of the word, in which you are desperate to find out whether O’Farrell’s daughter makes it to the hospital in time as anaphylaxis sets in, whether the police catch the man who tried to kill her, whether she escapes the rip current.
But most of it’s what they’ve come to learn about life, and the universality of what they were thinking and feeling. In between near-death experiences, O’Farrell writes of the creepy (male) chef who used to hit on her during her teenage restaurant job, the doctor who didn’t believe her pain, the college boyfriend who cheated on her, the experience of being a twenty-something who had no idea what to do with her life.
Even if you’ve never lost a child, her belief that “life is a string of moments, some chapters will be long, others might be really short,” hits home. Even if you’ve never (almost) drowned, you can connect with her epiphany that failing to get into a PhD program was “a merciful escape, a guardian angel, glancing down from her cloud and seeing me cycle to my exams, perceived what might happen and let slip a celestial spanner that well and truly jammed my works.”
In 2018, when everyone is searching for meaning and some bit of truth, the resilience of women offers something to cling to.