Thirty-five-year-old Kate Bowler was a professor at the school of divinity at Duke, and had finally had a baby with her childhood sweetheart after years of trying, when she began to feel jabbing pains in her stomach. She lost thirty pounds, chugged a
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really liked it
This was the 2018 title I was most looking forward to reading, and it didn’t disappoint. I devoured it in one day. It combines two of my niche interests: medical (especially cancer) memoirs, and the prosperity gospel, a dubious theology I grew up with in the Pentecostal church my parents still attend in America. Indeed, Bowler’s previous book is a history of the prosperity gospel in America. Though she grew up surrounded by the Canadian Mennonite tradition, as she made progress towards becoming
If she’d ever been tempted to set store by this notion, that certainty was permanently fractured when she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in her mid-thirties. “In a spiritual world in which healing is a divine right, illness is a symptom of unconfessed sin,” that way of thinking went. Having incurable cancer forced her to acknowledge that nothing is actually that simple; that there is no direct correlation between the quality of your faith and the outcomes you experience. “Control is a drug and we are all hooked,” she realized, when really life, with all its beauty and awfulness, is down to luck. Bowler writes tenderly about suffering and surrender, and about living in the moment with her husband and son while being uncertain of the future she faces. I especially liked the appendix entitled “Absolutely Never Say This to People Experiencing Terrible Times” (followed by some alternative lines to try).
Bowler’s writing reminds me of Anne Lamott’s and Nina Riggs’s, and I highly recommend her book to memoir fans.
really liked it
Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved is a propulsive memoir about a young woman’s sudden, dramatic diagnosis of stage-four cancer after months, possibly years (the timeline is fuzzy), of inexplicable symptoms and innumerable, pointless appointments with medical specialists. Some might frame a personal narrative like Bowler’s in terms of the uncertainty of medical science, reflecting on the imperfection and limitations of humans as diagnosticians and care-givers. Hindsight
While Bowler tells a story that will be familiar to those who have personally lived with their own serious illness or the illness of someone close to them, as well as those who have read other memoirs about the subject, the author’s angle—a religious and academic one— is rather unusual. At the time she first experienced her inexplicable symptoms, Bowler was working on her dissertation on “the prosperity gospel”, the brand of Christianity famously exemplified by the likes of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Joel Osteen, and Kenneth Copeland—among innumerable other “televangelists”, “charismatics” and religious shysters out there. This “gospel” is premised on the idea that if one only believes enough, one is entitled to all of God’s bounty. This, importantly, is not limited to spiritual gifts; it also includes material wealth, such as money and cars, and worldly success in general. It’s basically, the evangelical “take” on the American Dream. The notion that the blessings will flow if one only works hard enough to believe is immensely attractive to those struggling with chronic or catastrophic illnesses, broken families, or troubled teenaged offspring. Often exhausted after having tried all the conventional fixes to life’s big problems, the desperate become as little children and surrender to magical thinking.
In essence the “prosperity gospel” isn’t that far removed from another homegrown American religion: Christian Science, which is predicated on the idea that right thought leads to perfect health. Illness, therefore, is evidence of flaws in the believer. While proponents of the prosperity gospel may not eschew modern medicine with its advanced diagnostics and techno-surgical, chemical, and experimental fixes, they are like the followers of Mary Baker Eddy in that they regard sickness as an indication of failure. Perhaps the believer hasn’t acknowledged all his sins and is preventing God from bestowing His bounty.
Bowler excels at communicating the visceral, chaotic feelings of a person faced with a sudden dire diagnosis: the fear, the panic, the pleading and bargaining, the anger at the injustice of it all (she is preparing for death while everyone else is on Instagram), the grief—the intense sorrow— at the prospect of being wrenched from her young son and her husband, Toban, whom she’s loved since their adolescence in Manitoba. She even writes of being aggrieved at slights she won’t be present to argue against, projecting a future without herself in it, imagining some well-meaning but deluded soul accosting her husband with the old pearl of wisdom that God must have wanted another angel. Bowler’s narrative reveals all this but also indicates that the author hasn’t been an entirely detached observer of and commentator on the prosperity gospel; she’s absorbed at least some of its tenets. She writes: “It is one thing to abandon vices and false starts and broken relationships.I have tried to scrounge around in my life for things to improve, things to repent of, things to give God to say, There. I gave it all. But it is something else entirely to surrender my family . . .”
At the time of her sudden (late) diagnosis and surgery, Bowler was a lecturer at Duke University’s Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. She not only had an abundance of friends to rally around her, but she also had a bevy of pastors, pastors-in-training, and general do-gooders praying for her. However, all the prayers in the world could do little to assuage the threat of being cut down in her prime.
Bowler’s memoir is an interesting and quick read, though the author’s telling is (understandably) occasionally scrambled and frustrating. The disorganized execution creates a sense of emotional immediacy, but sometimes causes confusion. Events are not presented in clear, chronological order and the language can sometimes be fuzzy. For example, we are told that some years before the cancer diagnosis, when Bowler was hospitalized, having “agreed to some kind of surgery”, she and her husband were stunned to learn—seemingly mere hours before the procedure (again, the chronology is unclear)—that she is pregnant (after years of struggling with infertility). One assumes the surgery was intended to address the mysterious loss of motor function in Bowler’s arms. Whatever the case, the operation was off, and the couple returned home to dither and fuss for a bit. “But it had begun,” Bowler writes. What “it” was is not clear. The pregnancy? The ordeal? (By this point, she had already been having symptoms for some time.) She continues: “I felt something strange and ran to the bathroom. I started to scream for Toban.” What was this strange “something”? She doesn’t say. In the shower: “I could not look down. I was nothing but blood and water.” Is this meant literally, or is it a presentiment? Again, it is not clear.
A significant part of Bowler’s memoir is dedicated to describing the mail, both snail and electronic, she received after an essay of hers was published in the New York Times. It seems all correspondence— whether from Christians, atheists, Buddhists, or fellow cancer patients—was intended to provide Bowler with the writers’ understanding of the reason why she had been stricken. Some letters were confessional outpourings. At the end of her book, Bowler provides appendices about what to say and not to say to someone dealing with catastrophic illness—something that many readers may find useful.
At the time of writing, Bowler was still engaged in clinical trials for which she had to fly to Atlanta on a weekly basis. A scan conducted every two months indicated whether she was eligible to continue for two months more. After half a dozen or so rounds, there were signs that Bowler’s body was having a hard time coping with the toxic chemical loads. Having learned that she was among the three percent with the “magic” cancer that could be explained by a complicated gene repair disorder that might respond to experimental therapies, there was, of course, no guarantee that the treatment would actually be magical or the response long lasting.
Many of us go through life events that utterly transform us, about which we can say later there is distinct “before” and “after”. For some, these events occur sooner than later. The world—or more precisely, the way we see it—seems completely changed. The carpet has been pulled out from under us, or perhaps the obscuring veil of illusion has dropped.
Everything Happens For A Reason
represents its author’s effort to make sense of the ultimate seismic shift in her life. One of the things she learns as she is “stuck in the eternal present of cancer”, trying to walk the “fine line between total passivity and supercharged heroic effort”, is that “nothing human or divine will map out this life, this life that has been more painful than I had imagined. More beautiful than I had imagined.”
Thank you to Net Galley and Allison Schuster at Penguin Random House for providing me with a digital copy of this memoir.
I started this book in the waiting room at the dentist, which was a mistake, in part because I’m always about to cry at the dentist and also because the dentist does not deserve to witness my deep wonder.
So I did what any reasonable person should and finished this book at home in bed on a slow morning. And gosh. I’m glad my roommates weren’t home because I oscillated between an ugly cry and a full belly laugh in the course of like three pages.
Kate’s voice is incisive and thoughtful and honest