In her latest memoir, “Sanctuary,” Emily Rapp Black attempts to plumb both grief and love. After the death of her son, Ronan, to Tay-Sachs disease before his 3rd birthday, a journey she writes about in her previous memoir “The Still Point of the Turning World” (2014), Black finds herself living in the aftermath of unimaginable loss. On these pages, she refuses to usher the reader through the tidy, well-bordered stages of grief. Instead, she is rebuilding a life in ways that are messy, erratic, and devastating while finding moments of joy, strength, and resilience, a word she’s wrestled with.
As the book begins, she has divorced her ex-husband, Ronan’s father, and is falling in love with Kent, a kind man 20 years her senior. Together, they decide to have a child. Their daughter, Charlie, is a bright and dynamic presence that sparks throughout the book.
The memoir seems to be broken into two different impulses. A bit more than the first half of the book reads more like a novel, scene by scene, as she makes sense of what can feel like two different lives, as the mother of Ronan and then as the mother of Charlie. The most climactic moment in the book happens in the prologue. She’s poised at a guardrail on a bridge 565 feet above the Rio Grande Gorge, considering death by suicide. Her son is dying; she will have to witness and bear his death. She decides to live. After the prologue, Black moves around in time, and, eventually — as if forestalling the inevitable sorrow — writes of her son’s death, which is deeply heartbreaking and visceral. When the prose rises in the early sections, it really soars. However, the prose often felt flat, shadowed by the poetic epigraphs at the start of each chapter. In particular, Black’s connection with Kent felt underwritten. In the first half of the book, she likens their relationship to a romantic comedy, twice. It felt like an admission of under-development. I was left not truly understanding the depth of their bond.
The latter part of the book, however, is made up of essays, and this is where Black is in full command. The glimpses of brilliance — lines that readers will most certainly highlight and carry with them — start coming, in these later chapters, with ferocity. When Black stops moving in scenes and starts to write from her intellect, the work becomes brutally compelling. It’s counterintuitive, but when Black stops writing herself as a character who has to move through scenes, and instead writes about the wood of Viking ships or butterflies or the skeletal structure of birds or the way trees carry their wounds or the Latin root of resilience, resilire (to leap back), and then ties it to the personal, she is the most present, real, and authentic. The reader is witnessing a mind coming to terms with grief. The beauty and urgency of that work is laid bare and feels as smart as it does raw, honest, and true.
In some of the most moving passages, it’s clear that Black is her father’s daughter; she was raised by a Lutheran pastor. Although she doesn’t believe in heaven, some passages move the way good sermons do. From close examinations of texts — for example, the diaries of children in the Holocaust (“Salvaged Pages”), the works of Carl Jung and Vladimir Nabokov, the poems of Maggie Smith and Jack Gilbert, to name a few — she deftly shifts to the personal, often a small act of kindness or tender perception.
Many of these images will remain with me forever. Black, whose leg was amputated when she was 4 years old, tells us about her family’s visit to a water park shortly after the surgery. Not yet fitted with an artificial limb, she can’t climb up the slides. Her 10-year-old cousin carries her on her back, over and over.
On the way home from a butterfly exhibit, her daughter asleep in the backseat, Black thinks of the phoenix. “What if, instead of heroically bursting from the fire, a weakened and traumatized bird rises awkwardly, just barely, careening through a wall of sky on fire, entirely uncertain of what fate awaits. … Why can’t this mess be a triumph?”
I was astonished by Black’s generosity. With fragile hopefulness, she reaches for and finds a kindness for herself and, therefore, all of us.
After listing the ways various creatures shed their skin, she writes, “Grief might be described as a specialized molt of emotion. All of us are required, at some point, to transform in some way (mentally, physically, emotionally) in order to live. It doesn’t make us brave or special or worthy of being singled out. It makes us living creatures made of malleable, mortal, and, yes, resilient, stuff.”
Faced with the impenetrable nature of grief, Black has found a way in, one she excavates and fills with light.
SANCTUARY: A Memoir
By Emily Rapp Black
Random House, 240 pages, $27
Julianna Baggott is the author, most recently, of “Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonder.”