The memoir “You’ve Been So Lucky Already” isn’t interested in anchoring itself in one experience. Its author, Alethea W. Black ’91, has written a reflection on both mental and physical health: a study of the kaleidoscopic feelings of anxiety, worry, and depression that reoccur in her life — particularly after the tragic loss of her beloved father, MIT professor and mathematician Fischer Black. Though at times its narrative feels unstructured and unmoored, Black’s memoir humorously and quite touchingly presents an account of external loss and personal discovery.
Death and tragedy have always revolved around Black. Her father’s death is foreshadowed very early on, and Black insists to her readers that she has always been somewhat in touch with a darker world. She frequently hears voices at night, the most prominent of which comes during her teens after a classmate, Andrew, commits suicide. Though he wasn’t a close friend, Andrew visits her dreams with a disturbing urgency, his death fast becoming an life-altering experience for Black: “All these things conspire to make me suspicious about the nature of existence.”
This tragedy is presented in conjunction with the events that occur leading up to her father’s illness and eventual passing. Black recounts many anecdotes about their time together, describing in rich detail the feeling of security he exuded, the brilliance and wit he displayed. She also captures the strife in their relationship as they grow apart due to her parent’s divorce. When it comes to the logistics of his actual illness and death, Black strangely pulls away. This is perhaps symptomatic of her desire to keep parts of the memories untouched.
In general, the book unabashedly probes the many obstacles she faces and the experiences that change her. Black is not afraid to open herself up to the reader, telling us about her eating disorders, the hurt from countless failed relationships, and even an abortion. By the end, however, we encounter a woman tough as nails — a self-proclaimed “woman on fire”: “A woman on fire is a woman who speaks, who is not cowed, who is not too polite, but who takes the reins of her life into her hands and blazes brightly.”
Black’s post-Harvard life is quite the pilgrimage: She explores her shell-shocked state following her father’s death during which she aimlessly wanders around New York, struggling to contain her depression. She eventually speaks to her successful experience working in magazine publishing, and the sickness that consumes much of her adult life as well as the years she spends in and out of treatment or else lost on the internet determined to cure herself.
For each of the three parts of her book, Black has an introduction describing the current status of her life using a present tense, second person narration. The “you” of this narrative is of course her, but the technique forces the reader into her shoes: “You don’t give the finger to the black pickup truck that tailgates and passes you aggressively, then let go of the wheel to give it two fingers when you see a rainbow-colored peace sticker on its bumper.” Just for a moment, this forces you to be in the wild world of Alethea Black in the most terrifying and exhilarating way. These chapters are particularly rife with her razor-sharp humor.
During one such chapter, Black is babysitting her friend’s six-month year old baby. She is about to read him a story, but finds all the books unworthy of being read. Her solution is downright hilarious: “You decide to give him a taste of John Keats, to expand his horizons.” Surprisingly, the baby likes it.
Another humorous anecdote recounts the visit of a college roommate — a serial dieter who is so competitive that she even takes losing weight or dieting as a competition: “She begins to monitor what I eat, and comment on it. The she starts monitoring what the dog eats.” This makes her realize that her friend has always been a bit of a bully — but perhaps more importantly, that Black has allowed these situations to happen to herself. In the end, the heart of the matter is that Black always comes back to self-realizations, which give her memoir purpose. Since there is a distinct lack of organization in its structure, this purpose is a particularly welcome feeling.
With humor and candor, “You’ve Been So Lucky Already” makes serious discussions of health, illness, and tragedy much more palatable. Yet she manages to strike a balance, never losing the emotions and the struggles that come with this territory. Though its structure could have been tighter and some of its anecdotes are less funny than others, it is an altogether rather compelling tale of journey and recovery.
—Staff writer Aline G. Damas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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