Reading Emily Rapp

To read Emily Rapp’s memoir The Still Point of the Turning World is to have that life river that you’re navigating—an eddy here, a riffle there—go all Niagara on your ass. You’re in a barrel with Rapp, the mother of a child—Ronan—who’s just been diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease (100% terminal), plummeting over the precipice. Then you’re in the plunge pool, churning, roiling, wondering vaguely which way is up, or if there is a way up, to the surface. Rapp has brought you here, but now that you’re weeping underwater and she’s slapping you around a bit for being so inexcusably feeble, you aren’t sure she’ll show you any mercy. And, really, who can blame her, a mother with a dying baby to deal with, a writer who is writing to save herself, if she won’t spare you.

I expected this experience, or something like it, when I cracked open The Still Point of the Turning World. The book began as Little Seala blog that I chanced upon at its near beginning and hitched a ride, voyeur first-class, for the harrowing journey that became the book. I have read the raw material—which is not to call it rough; Rapp has too refined a mind for that. I have followed the seasons: Team Rapp and Pen versus Agony and Anger. And for these two years, I have tried to wrap my mind around the sadness, the beauty, the keening, and the rage of Emily Rapp on the open page. What I expected, Still Point delivers, precipice, plunge, roil, and all, and while the writing is resonate and multi-layered, it still smells of the blood of its making, and as a reader, I can’t help but respond viscerally.

I’ll explain. While Rapp rails against even her readers’ shabby attempts at empathy, at all the “missives tinged with pity and selfishness that made me livid, and seemed more about the senders than about Ronan,” I can’t rise above. Loyal voyeur though I have been, this journey is not mine, and I do not write what I write next with any intent to usurp or appropriate Rapp’s experience—one particular and wholly individual, one that, in spite of her capable rendering, does not lend itself to be understood vicariously so much as it engages a reader’s personal experience of grief or loss, or, as in my own case, fear of loss.

Or perhaps what I am trying to say is that the emotions this book invokes are too carnal, in the sense that motherhood is an act and process of the body opposed to the intellect, to attribute the feelings to mere imagination. The heart-pain I feel reading is my own pain, for Ronan and his mother, but also that pain that is love and need, that is both universal and individual and by which we are made human. So while I write recognizing that I may have learned nothing from this book, that I have failed, even with so articulate a teacher, to comprehend the sheer depths of the netherland that is a mother’s living grief, my motivation is merely to honor, in my own flawed way, the power of story.

Ronan’s diagnosis day was my own second son’s due date. But that baby had made his puny debut a few weeks early, weighing in just over two kilos on the scales in the Mexican hospital where he had been born, and I was rattled. To me, intellectually, having a baby in Mexico, where my husband and I lived and worked, was no big thing: children are born and children die all over this globe, under the best and worst conditions. And Mexico is nowhere near the worst, just as the U.S. is nowhere near the best. But all that January my son’s too-small body terrified me and being in a strange place didn’t help. There was a six-inch centipede in my children’s clean laundry, a scorpion over the bedroom door, a black widow under the bathroom sink. And then there was the war, which meant mostly that I kept rediscovering how the muzzles of a soldier’s down-turned gun or holstered pistol were the precise height of my toddling first-born’s little head. Children are born everywhere, and everywhere they die, but nowhere on the planet does a mother not suffer for both.

My new baby’s bird-light body in my arms made me feel as if I were suddenly walking a tightrope over some gaping, unknowable hole, and it didn’t help that I had made an unconventional choice of setting. If something went wrong now, however unlucky or random or flukish or rare, it would always be on me. Rather than write this fear, I wrote peppy bits about butterflies, public dancing, and recipes for fruit gazpacho.

Enter Emily Rapp and Ronan, via their Little Seal blog, who were not teetering above some imagined doom, but were plummeting, in all-out free fall. I studied that fall, both the flailing and the grace. Across these two years and this new book, Rapp muses, rages, seethes: What looks like normal? What is grief? What is luck? What constitutes “healing” when every one of us, our children very much included, is dying?

I took note, finding in each depiction of death, of mortality, a lesson for living:

“There is something profound and liberating about naming the unspeakable, giving it voice, letting it live in a room, stretch its legs, burp, be obnoxious,” writes Rapp of death.

Then:

“Out on the arroyo path with Ronan in the front pack, I often closed my eyes and trudged along, thinking, It’s you and me, little dude, and this is all there is. It was like stepping through a trapdoor; I dropped and dropped and dropped. I felt a wild clarity, an unstoppable grief and, sometimes a flash of sadness like a dim memory, as if I had climbed a ladder into a realm of ecstasy I had never experienced before.”

And then:

“Why are we so afraid of the body? Is it because it’s a mess, unpredictable, mortal, unreliable? We take pains to perfect it, to keep it healthy, but we probably wouldn’t go to such extremes if we weren’t scared to death to lose it. A paradox: we pretend we don’t need it, that it’s our minds that matter, and yet the body is the thing we can’t ignore and that knocks our thinking minds flat to the floor.”

The thing is, Emily Rapp isn’t writing about death in this book; she’s writing, urgently, in the specific now and under terrifying time constraints, about living life. The very now-ness of this book—the fact that both its subject matter and the making of this book occupy the same space of time—is electric in its effect. Blogging is certainly shrinking the distance between events and their telling, but the memoir tradition overwhelmingly assumes the necessity of intellectual and psychic distance from events before they may be rendered into literary art. This assumption has just been debunked. This memoir is, as Rapp imagines Ronan’s experience of the world, “like stepping free into a space, into a ‘first,’ into a state of wonder.”

Throughout The Still Point of the Turning World, Emily Rapp leans heavily on literature for solace and sense-making. Mary Shelley and C. S. Lewis are nearly fledged characters in this memoir; Simone Weil’s philosophical interludes tether the text. But what Rapp has created, I am trying in my own perhaps-too-personal way to say, is this: here is a work of literature that offers its own solace, to those fierce dragon mothers of Tay-Sachs babies, to those who inhabit the valley of grief, and to those of us who navigate smooth waters today but can’t predict what awaits downstream.

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