Title: I Am, I Am, I Am: A Memoir (2017)
Author: Maggie O’Farrell
Publisher/Edition: Tinder Press
Read: 11th – 15th December 2018
Genre: non-fiction; memoir
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“When Maggie O’Farrell’s daughter was diagnosed with a severe immunology disorder, she found herself writing stories to make sense of how closely with live alongside the possibility of death and the reality of pain. She began to look back at her own life, her own near-fatal illness as a child and the moments through her life where she was forced to look her own mortality in the face. A childhood illness she was not expected to survive. A teenage yearning to escape that nearly ended in disaster. A terrifying encounter on a remote path. A mismanaged labour in an understaffed hospital. This is a memoir with a difference: seventeen encounters with Maggie at different ages, in different locations, reveal to us a whole life in a series of tense, visceral snapshots.” (Synopsis from Waterstones)
Prior to opening this book, I hadn’t read a single word of Maggie O’Farrell’s work and, truth be told, I didn’t know a thing about her. I was aware of some kind of buzz around her novels when it came to a few award nominations and book clubs but aside from that I knew less than nothing about what kind of stories she told or what kind of author she was. After reading I Am, I Am, I Am I now feel like I know O’Farrell a lot more intimately than I ever reckoned I would, and if I do pick up one of her fiction books I’m sure it will be all the more emotional having read about the experiences and concepts which must undoubtedly influence and inspire her fiction.
“That the things in life which don’t go to plan are usually more important, more formative, in the long run, than the things that do.”
Split up into chapters, each headed by a different part of the body, and therefore a different “injury” to each, I Am, I Am, I Am tells the tale of various brushes with death the author has encountered, and survived. The first is chilling and certainly the one that is most obviously shocking – she managed to talk down a stranger who followed her upon a remote Scottish hill, managing to slip away from him by distracting him with talk rather than producing the reaction of fear that he probably expected (and needed) from a would-be victim. Mere days later, a woman turned up dead, the same man was accused and most certainly guilty of the crime. But when O’Farrell had went to the local police station to report the suspicious man after her brush with him, she’d been treated with exasperation from the police officer. How could she have known he intended her harm? Because, she’d argued to the unbelieving male police officer, sometimes you just know, sometimes, as a woman, you’ve somehow (had to) become attuned to knowing if the attention you’re being paid isn’t quite right, and there could be violent intent lurking beneath. This was a chapter that oddly hit me, and I didn’t expect it. It’s probably unsurprising given the prevalence of stories of sexual harassment and abuse being so talked about thanks to the #MeToo movement. In some ways, I expected to find the story hard to stomach, but I didn’t quite expect to be so emotionally effect by O’Farrell’s recollection of it.
“I can go for days without thinking about it; at other times it feels like a defining moment. It means nothing. It means everything.”
It’s curious that I Am, I Am, I Am could have spoke to me so acutely, even past this first chapter, given that myself and Maggie O’Farrell probably have very little in common. I’m not a mother, I’ve never been a particularly impulsive person, I’ve never found myself halfway round the world on a spur-of-the-moment decision, I’ve never been mugged, I’ve never had a serious health issue (touch wood) like Maggie had to grapple with herself and for those around her, I’ve never had the heartbreak of losing a child in the womb, I’ve never had the heartbreak of wanting to help your painfully ill daughter and having to be on high-alert constantly because the slightest little thing could kill her. That is to say: I’ve never had a brush with death – or at least, I don’t think I have. That’s probably what I Am, I Am, I Am has most taught me, that there are experiences in your life which, had you moved an inch, or had you been walking in a certain spot an hour before, or had you not managed to kick your way out of that riptide, could have been the end, curtains closed, no encore. And it’s something that all of us, regardless of our background or the trials and tribulations we go on (or don’t) through life, will face in the end. That sounds incredibly fatalistic and morbid but, somehow, O’Farrell manages to relay several near-death experiences and then convincingly argue for a reaffirmation of presence and of existence in the world – as the title says firmly “I am”.
“When he took my hand he taught me something about the value of touch, the communicative power of the human hand.”
In conclusion, I didn’t know what to expect from this memoir. I had been recommended it merely on the basis that “it’s good”, that vague recommendation from a work colleague, and I had thought I might enjoy the slightly macabre and morbid setup of it. I couldn’t have counted on feeling so oddly connected to a woman whose life experiences I share very few of. I couldn’t have counted on being basically in tears as I read the section in which I did recognise something of the way she spoke, the section about her daughter’s childhood eczema. But mainly, I couldn’t have counted on the thought-provoking and oddly uplifting tone of the ending, a timely reminder that, sometimes, realising you could be an inch away from death (or indeed that you have been before) instead allows you to fight back against that tide, to say “not today Death”.
“We are, all of us, wandering about in a state of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall.”