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The phrase "a man's dying is more the survivors' affair than his own" has always struck me as depressing. If it is true that the people whom I love and to whom I am inextricably linked will eventually leave me with a tragic and heartbreaking "affair" when they are gone, then I just have to object; it is not okay, nor is it fair! I believe this feeling is the starting point of all grief, and it is not a sophisticated, adult, or sensible reaction, it is deeply emotional and simply human. Picking up The Mercy Papers, the cover tells me it is "a furious blaze of a book". This makes me instantly want to read it -- a furious book about the death of a loved one, described by words like powerful, raw, and honest, just sounds so much better than any of the titles mentioning tools, coping, mindfulness or acceptance that usually dominate the literature when it comes to this subject.
The Mercy Papers turns out to be a book about the 29-year old writer Robin Romm's experience of losing her mother to breast cancer. According to interviews with Romm, the book was written during and right after her loss, and this is reflected in the intensity of the writing -- the text is raw, like an open wound, which is something I soon discover has a soothing effect on me. As far as I am concerned, there is far too much forced acceptance and tranquility in the world, and Romm's writing certainly lacks that: "I don't want my mother to die.[...] I will not be okay, It would be like being nice. I may be anguished and exhausted or anxious and excited or full of buzzing. But I am never okay. And when my mom dies it will be crushing pain, a silence that will fill me and break me over and over again, daily, relentlessly" she writes. And this must be the bottom line for anyone in her situation: that "it is not okay that you die! I can't accept it and I won't survive it! Please don't die, please stop this from happening, because I-Still-Need-You." The Mercy Papers is an articulate testimony of this emotional protest, this normal and (ir-)rational rebellion.
More than anything, The Mercy Papers circles around the classic themes of loss and love. I have read a few memoirs before, but I have never been as struck by the loneliness of the writer, her isolation, as in this one. Romm spends time with her mother, her father, her dog, friends of the family and, to some extent, her boyfriend, but she rarely makes real contact with any one of them. Her own emotions seem to devour her, her anger eats her alive. And maybe this is the reason why I never get close to her, either: her anger prevents me, the reader, from getting intimate with this story. Romm gives detailed descriptions of her mother's beautiful house and the clothes she used to wear when she was a successful attorney, but I cannot feel it. Actually this is what annoys me most in this book: the author's concern with the surface of things, the meticulous mention of the beautiful artifacts chosen by her mother, and her mother's flawlessness, powerfulness, stylishness and success. While reading, I wish for honest, unflinching moments with Romm's mother, because I would have wanted to get to know her myself, not just be told how perfect she was. I want to see, feel and imagine this person, who must have been so much more than a woman with beautiful power dresses, a wonderful house and a successful career, and I want to share these memories with her daughter. But no, we do not, and no, she does not come alive.
I think it would have been interesting if Romm had reflected on why it is so important to remember and render her mother in this two-dimensional fashion. Maybe Romm wants to show how she retreats to more primitive, idealizing ways of seeing when constantly threatened by death to come and take her beloved parent from her?
The Mercy Papers has been praised for its lack of sentimentality, but I find this book very colored by emotion. I never cried, though, and I never felt 'wow, what a beautiful world this is' or anything of the sort. Instead, I learnt about loneliness, despair, how fear really eats the soul and how petty and small the world becomes when you try to hold on to what isn't yours. So, therefore, this was a most valuable read! Never has this been shown to me more clearly. Having finished the book, big words suddenly make sense, clichés seem like a salvation from Romm's isolated, aggravated state of mind, and I start thinking about hope, longing, humor, and all the things that make life worthwhile. It seems so true that love and memory combined is the only way we may overcome death. At least for a moment -- and that is probably all we should ask for.
© 2011 Minna Forsell
Minna Forsell is a psychologist, graduated from the University of Stockholm. She currently works in a psychiatric health care center in Volda, Western Norway.