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Death & Dying

by Christina Middlebrook
Doubleday, 1998
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Sep 9th 1998

Seeing the Crab In this remarkable book, Christina Middlebrook tells the story of her battle with cancer. At the end of the book, finished in 1996, she is of course still alive, but she leaves her readers very aware how her fight against cancer is one she will eventually lose. I would like the reassurance that she is still alive today, but I don't have that luxury. The book did give me a heightened sense of how tenuous our grip on life is, and of how there are no guarantees about my personal future. Furthermore, she shows how once one becomes seriously ill, one's life dramatically changes. One aspect of this book that is refreshing is how ungrateful Middlebrook is that she became ill. Even though the experience gives her new insights and understanding, those are silver linings she could do without. What she loves is her life, her projects, the possibilities of new adventures, and the people around her. She hates the prospect of dying. She also hates the suffering she has to go through in order to fight her cancer. Nevertheless, she also comes to some form of acceptance of the new world she has entered, and the inevitability of her death.

 Middlebrook's life is by no means average. She has written several books already, and she worked before her illness as a Jungian psychotherapist and lives in San Francisco with her husband, her teenage daughter, and many of the belongings of her grown children. She is well traveled, and during the course of her illness she is able to go on several trips to other cities both in the US and Europe. But her life is also full of the problems faced by others. Both she and her husband were previously married, and so their lives are complicated by a web of relationships from the past. Her mother and sister seem incapable of facing the fact of her suffering and possible death. Despite her apparent wealth, she isn't able to afford on her own the very expensive medical treatments she undergoes, and so she and her husband have to raise money to pay for it, relying on the charity of friends. She experiences the grief of her family and the sometimes bizarre reactions of friends and well-wishers.

 All of this goes to make a very compelling story, and she is a talented story teller. She manages to convey some of the suffering she endures without any sense of boasting, although she is clear that most people have no idea what she has gone through and she has little patience for the platitudes some proffer in encouragement or sympathy. Her writing is vivid and straightforward, mostly avoiding psychological theories about death and dying. She certainly doesn't adopt any views from organized religion; she even avoids using the catch-all phrase "spirituality." For her, new age approaches are no more helpful than the old religions. So she faces her life with her family, her old friends and the many new ones she has met who also have cancer with whom she often feels a sense of mutual understanding and solidarity. Her story unfolds and she reports her thoughts and responses along the way with an unabashed honesty. These cohere into more than a succession of events, but the book is no t offering a specific moral for its readers. The book is philosophical in an important sense, but not through giving answers to the meaning of life and the place of suffering. Rather, her achievement is simply to write about such painful events, Middlebrook offering a vocabulary for others to describe and compare their own experiences. That is no mean feat.