Intoxicated By My Illness: And Other Writings on Life and Death

Intoxicated By My Illness: And Other Writings on Life and Death



The Pequod Review:

Anatole Broyard (1920-1990) was most famous for his fifteen year career as a daily book reviewer for The New York Times and, later, as editor of The New York Times Book Review. However, in August 1989, at age sixty-nine, he was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer that just over a year later would claim his life. Intoxicated By My Illness is a short collection of fourteen essays that deal with themes of illness or dying, most of which relate to his own impending mortality. 

Broyard is a beautiful writer and he brings a literary sensibility to his diagnosis:

So much of a writer’s life consists of assumed suffering, rhetorical suffering, that I felt something like relief, even elation, when the doctor told me that I had cancer of the prostate. Suddenly there was in the air a rich sense of crisis—real crisis, yet one that also contained echoes of ideas like the crisis of language, the crisis of literature, or of personality. It seemed to me that my existence, whatever I thought, felt, or did, had taken on a kind of meter, as in poetry or in taxis.
When you learn that your life is threatened, you can turn toward this knowledge or away from it. I turned toward it. It was not a choice but an automatic shifting of gears, a tacit agreement between my body and my brain. I thought that time had tapped me on the shoulder, that I had been given a real deadline at last. It wasn’t that I believed the cancer was going to kill me, even though it had spread beyond the prostate—it could probably be controlled, either by radiation or hormonal manipulation. No. What struck me was the startled awareness that one day something, whatever it might be, was going to interrupt my leisurely progress. It sounds trite, yet I can only say that I realized for the first time that I don’t have forever.
Time was no longer innocuous, nothing was casual any-more. I understood that living itself had a deadline—like the book I had been working on. How sheepish I would feel if I couldn’t finish it. I had promised it to myself and to my friends. Though I wouldn’t say this out loud, I had promised it to the world. All writers privately think this way.

One of the most heartfelt chapters is "The Patient Examines the Doctor," in which Broyard describes his view of the ideal physician:

To the typical physician, my illness is a routine incident in his rounds, while for me it's the crisis of my life. I would feel better if I had a doctor who at least perceived this incongruity. I don't ask him to love me -- in fact, I think the role of love is greatly exaggerated by many writers on illness... I wouldn't demand a lot of my doctor's time: I just wish he would brood on my situation for perhaps five minutes, that he would give me his whole mind just once, be bonded with me for a brief space, survey my soul as well as my flesh, to get at my illness, for each man is ill in his own way.

This is an intelligent book on how to approach the end of our lives with dignity and compassion.