Author: Sarah Ramey
Source: from publisher for review
Links: Bookshop (affiliate link) |Goodreads
Summary: This was a mix of beautiful/entertaining prose and clear explanations, as enjoyable as it was informative.
This memoir of author Sarah Ramey’s experience with a ‘mysterious illness’ describes her many infuriating and unhelpful encounters with both doctors and alternative medicine practitioners. The callous response she receives from doctors, who regularly disregard clear physical evidence she’s sick and suggest a psychological explanation, was horrifying. Unfortunately, it isn’t a rare experience. Especially among women, complex diseases of the immune system are on the rise. Many of the women who experience these ‘mysterious illnesses’ encounter the same disbelief from medical practitioners and friends. In this memoir, Ramey’s personal experience therefore provides the reader with insight into a common but rarely discussed experience. She also suggests some helpful approaches to dealing with these illnesses and for contextualizing them that will likely be of use to other people, or those related to other people, experiencing similar health issues.
This was an incredibly well written book and I have almost exclusively positive things to say about it. That said, I’m going to get my one complaint out of the way first…
The author struck me as overly obsessed with stereotypical notions of gender. While she does, briefly, acknowledge that differences between men and women might be biological or social; that nonbinary people exist; and that she’s talking about stereotypically feminine and masculine traits; these points didn’t receive the emphasis they deserved. She never mentions trans people, which feels like an oversight. I agreed with a number of her points, such as the need to acknowledge that those of us identified female at birth are physically different in some ways from those identified male (immune system, etc). I certainly believe that these illnesses have been given less attention and confused for psychological problems because they primarily afflict women. I’m glad she made these points. I also have a lot of empathy for her desire to fit her suffering into a meaningful narrative, as in her extensive discussion of “the heroine’s journey”. However, I think the topic of gender could have been handled more sensitively and accurately. I also think her emphasis on gender might alienate men who share this suite of symptoms – whose existence she totally ignores until well into the book. Last but not least, her focus on the demonization of stereotypically female traits and the busy modern world (ie technology) really lets economic stressors off the hook. I suspect wage stagnation is a much bigger modern stressor than twitter, for example!
That aside, I thought this book was very good. The author immediately hooked me with her often humorous take on this painful topic. She tells her story in an engaging way, taking the reader along with her through many false or incomplete epiphanies followed by difficult relapses. She includes enough vivid details that we can see the infuriating reality of how the medical system treats her. Likewise, her symptoms are described in enough detail to expose the misery of what she’s going through. The amount of detail didn’t ever feel gratuitous. In fact, I think the author probably spared us more of her suffering than she had to. By showing how overwhelming her illness was and how poorly the medical system reacted, she made it possible to understand why people would turn to alternative medicine – even for an extreme skeptic, like me! Humor, pop culture references, and her optimistic personality made this a pleasure to read, despite infuriating or depressing turns in her story.
The structure of the book was also extremely effective. Frequent section breaks gave the book a rapid, gripping pace, despite its length. At times, the breaks also gave the text a fragmented nature that felt like a reflection of the confusion and brain fog the author was experiencing. The shape of the text told the author’s story in other ways as well. When she’s spiraling into this world of no diagnosis, the text becomes stairs leading down. As she’s trying to restore order to her life. the text takes the shape of a list. Her blending of academic ideas with pop culture and thoughtful writing made this feel literary and intellectual. The explanations of complex concepts in health and in medicine were beautifully clear. The way she presented her recommendations, as a framework for action and with caveats that what works for her won’t work for everyone, felt like a responsible way to provide people with helpful advice, without making grandiose promises.
Despite my one complaint with this one, I thought it was incredibly well written, an enjoyable read, and full of information that will be valuable to both those who don’t know about people suffering from ‘mysterious illnesses’ and those who are too familiar with the phenomenon. Well deserving of the hype it’s received and one that I’m happy to recommend.