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[Book Review] Emily Rapp Black's 'Sanctuary' Shimmers

By Melissa Greenwood

Emily Rapp Black’s third memoir, Sanctuary, is as stunning and complex as she is. In it, she not only tells the story of losing her son Ronan to Tay-Sachs disease at two years and eleven months old, but also of remarrying and having a second and healthy child, Charlie—a daughter. (If you want to read all about Ronan and his beautiful, too-short life, turn to Rapp Black’s second memoir, The Still Point of the Turning World.) This book, though, is about resilience—a word that “has texture and meat and nuance and shadow and light and blood in it,” which Rapp Black not only researches, but also redefines.

After Ronan dies, Rapp Black is inundated with well-meaning well-wishers who call her brave, strong, and courageous. They think resiliency is “interchangeable with ‘strength’ or ‘toughness’…a synonym for ‘grit.’” But Rapp Black disagrees. She believes resiliency is simply something the living must do. In times of distress, it is “bounce back” or die.

Her research takes the reader on a journey beginning with the etymology of resilience. From there, she turns her attention to butterflies, Viking ships, and even children of the Holocaust, and she discovers that, historically, resiliency is closer in meaning to survival than anything else. It is a quality that’s instinctual for all living creatures, from trees to bugs to humans. “[W]e are engineered to live…hardwired to be tethered to the world and to fight for our place within it, to take up space, no matter the cost.” In other words, as Rapp Black explains throughout the book, we are born this way, with the innate:

ability to transform, to struggle, to molt [to]…tolerate change without being destroyed…[to undergo the kind of] messy transformation [that demands both] fragility [and]…strength…[because that’s] what living beings are designed to do: fight.

Resiliency, then, is not some special trait to be revered, according to the author, but something inside us all, and we must shift, bend, and find the light—creating ourselves anew in order to thrive—per this specific understanding of the term. But resiliency is not Rapp Black’s only topic of exploration. She’s also curious about sanctuaries. She herself occupies a sanctuary: the renovated, hundred-year-old St. Anne’s Church in Madrid, New Mexico (her new home with her new love), where she both recuperates after Ronan’s death and nests before her daughter’s birth. Although often associated with religion, a sanctuary doesn’t have to be religious. It can be:

a place of peace…wherever we find the sacred…places that hold us away from harm…spaces where we feel love and connection…any space with walls or without walls…any object…any memory…any vessel…a place of movement [or even just]…a safe resting place.

Perhaps then, sanctuaries are where we go to fuel our resiliency, to persevere—adapting and shape shifting as necessary—even if these spaces are sometimes only inside ourselves.

When it comes to her own interior world in the new life that she didn’t ask for, Rapp Black must hold, make sense of, and accept two often-competing truths, which she calls the “both/and.” She uses this phrase to describe two experiences existing “simultaneously…as if they were overlapping…two things at once, two feelings at once, two realities at once…one loss seen”—her “‘different’ body” (a birth defect required that, at the age of four, her left leg be amputated), “the other unseen”—child-loss. Throughout the memoir, Rapp Black reconciles having two children: “Ronan: my silent, sweet companion,” who is no longer of this world, and Charlie, her “wonderful, incandescent, spunky, gorgeous, kind, funny, smart, adventurous, generous, bright sprite light of a ginger girl.” Ultimately, she has to make peace with being “nobody’s mother” and both their mothers. In order to do so, Rapp Black wrestles with dueling feelings about her body—a “body that made a baby not fit for this world;” a differently-abled body she “hated and deliberately starved” and often has violent thoughts about; and yet the very strong and capable body that birthed two babies, can run, ski, Peloton, Pilates, and that she’s also sometimes proud of. Overall, Rapp Black knows that she must manage:

the promise of a second chance [and building]…a happy life against all the reasonable odds [with the stark reality that grief]…hot and roiling and present in my skin, my eyeballs, my toes, my mouth, my belly…never lessens, it just moves around…crash[ing] into you when you least expect it.

Maybe it’s exactly for this reason that she counsels others through their grief—because she’s known happiness alongside pain for as long as she’s lived as both a person with a disability and an athlete; as both Ronan and Charlie’s mother; as both bereavement coach and bereaved. And while Rapp Black knows that “other people’s stories of loss can be such heavy lifting, so much to hold,” she also trusts us with her story, the very way her own grief and writing students trust her with theirs—the way I have trusted her with mine.

This memoir is all the both slash ands: simultaneously uplifting and soul-crushing; lyrical and relatable. It’s a book that will make you cry and laugh and laugh-cry from the first page to the last.

Essayist, poet, and book reviewer Melissa Greenwood has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She has been published—both under this name and another—in Brevity; Lunch Ticket; Annotation Nation; The Los Angeles Review; the Los Angeles Review of Books; Meow Meow Pow Pow, where her flash piece was nominated for a best small fiction award; the Pup Pup Blog; The Manifest-Station; Poke; Neuro Logical; The Erozine; Moment Mag; Sledgehammer Lit; Screenshot Lit; Pink Plastic House; Impostor; the Jewish Literary Journal; Potato Soup Journal; The Muleskinner Journal; our own Kelp Journal; Rejection Letters; Drizzle Review; Fusion Anthology; GXRL; and forthcoming in Drunk Monkeys and HOOT's Cookbook Anthology. Melissa and her Canadian husband live in LA, where she teaches Pilates (Emily Rapp Black is a virtual client of hers), and he teaches elementary school. When she’s not working or writing, Melissa can be found reading, singing, or on the socials @mrg317_personal on Instagram and at on Facebook.

Quoted material © Emily Rapp Black, Sanctuary: A Memoir, Penguin Random House


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