Memoirs of illness are tricky. The raw material is often compelling: dramatic symptoms, embarrassing public moments, and unavoidable relationship pressures. The challenge is to share that raw material in a new way. Not every memoir needs to turn on the conceit that illness is an obstacle that must be overcome.
Full disclosure: I have multiple sclerosis. I approached Caro Llewellyn’s memoir Diving into Glass with excitement and a healthy dose of cynicism. Excitement, because reading about the symptoms and experiences of another person with MS is fascinating. There is a potential common bond when someone I have never met describes the exact feeling I have been trying to communicate to my neurologist. Those of us who are ill need a common language. I also approached the book with a certain cynicism. I am not just looking for stories, I seek prose or insight to illuminate my condition.
Richard Cohen, the American journalist who has lived with MS for three decades, calls those of us who are chronically ill ‘citizens of sickness’. I’ve read many memoirs about illness. There are sub-genres to explore – not just misery-lit and sick-lit, but memoirs of alcoholism and addiction, of recovery from trauma, of grief, of living with mental illness, and, finally, of terminal illness. As a citizen of sickness, I read such memoirs because I want to find someone who has had an experience or a symptom like mine.