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Strong at the Broken Places: Voices of Illness, a Chorus of Hopeby Richard M Cohen
Synopses & Reviews
In 2003 Cohen published Blindsided, a bestselling memoir of illness. The outpouring of support revealed to him that not only does the public want to hear from people who overcome the challenges of illness, but that in the isolated world of illness, there are people who want their voices to be heard. Strong at the Broken Places was born of the desire of many to share their stories in the hope that the sick and those who love them will see that they are not alone.
Cohen spent three years chronicling the lives of five diverse "citizens of sickness": Denise, who suffers from ALS; Buzz, whose Christian faith helps him deal with his non-Hodgkin's lymphoma; Sarah, a determined young woman with Crohn's disease; Ben, a college student with muscular dystrophy; Larry, whose bipolar disorder is hidden within. The five are different in age and gender, race and economic status, but they are determined to live life on their own terms. Intimately involved with these patients' lives, Cohen formed intense relationships with each, talked to their families and friends, and shared joy, even in heart-breaking setbacks.
Though each individual's illness wreaks havoc in a different way, Cohen shows how their experiences are strikingly similar and offer lessons for us all—on self-determination, on courage in the face of adversity and public ignorance, on keeping hope alive, and on finding strength and peace under the most difficult of circumstances.
We are strong at the broken places, stronger than we think. In sharing these inspirational and revealing stories, Richard M. Cohen and his fellow warriors against illness offer a chorus of hope.
"In 'The Illness Narratives,' his brilliant study of chronic illness, psychiatrist Arthur Kleinman recalls one of the first patients he encountered as a medical student, a 'seven-year-old girl who had been badly burned over most of her body' and 'who had to undergo a daily ordeal of a whirlpool bath during which the burnt flesh was tweezered away from her raw, open wounds.' Kleinman had been assigned... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) the job of holding the girl's unburned hand as each day she begged and screamed her way through the terrible procedure. But nothing Kleinman did or said to divert the girl calmed her until one day, frustrated, he asked her what it was like to be so badly burned. For the first time, she quieted. And then she began to tell him her story. I kept thinking of this as I read Richard M. Cohen's 'Strong at the Broken Places.' A former television news producer who is married to Meredith Vieira of the 'Today' show, Cohen is also author of a best-selling memoir, 'Blindsided,' about living with multiple sclerosis and colon cancer. In his new book, based on interviews conducted over two years, he seeks to give voice to 'five strong people on the front lines of illness,' as he puts it, all of whom are coping with life-threatening chronic diseases: Denise, from California, with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease); Buzz, from Indiana, with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma; Ben, from Maryland, with muscular dystrophy; Sarah, from Ohio, with Crohn's disease; and Larry, from Georgia, with bipolar disorder. The strength of these profiles derives from Cohen's focus on chronic illnesses that, as he notes, are not 'sexy' and generally 'do not resolve themselves.' The stories his interviewees tell are neither triumphant narratives of crisis and restoration nor medical adventures, like those TV hospital dramas in which the suffering of patients serves primarily to heighten the moral and personal dilemmas of heroic doctors. Instead, these are stories dense with quotidian details that reveal how chronic illness repeatedly assaults a patient's identity. At one point, we see the recently married Sarah, who has already had her large intestine and colon removed as a result of Crohn's disease, negotiate the prospect that she will also need a permanent ileostomy that will cause her body wastes to pass directly from her small intestine to an external plastic pouch. 'I twiddle my thumbs,' she tells Cohen, 'waiting for things to fall apart again.' Indeed, uncertainty pervades these narratives. 'Those who suffer serious sickness,' writes Cohen, 'know there is an ambulance with their name on it, parked just around the corner.' But Cohen's new book more often feels well-meaning than it does affecting, in large part because his subjects' voices are often submerged within his own earnest and importuning prose: 'These are the faces of illness in America,' he begins. 'Do not look away. The characters may surprise you, even shatter a stereotype or two. They are people, not cases, survivors, not victims.' Cohen too often sounds like a TV journalist narrating a feature story, with a broadcaster's penchant for alliteration — 'a death-dealing illness,' a 'strong streak of self-reliance,' 'a cocktail of condescension' — and unearned gravitas. Likewise, he structures each profile as if it were a feature for '20/20' or '60 Minutes': a few intimate scenes of the subjects in their daily lives, some talking-head footage and a sober voice-of-God narration that proves less penetrating than it might. One wants to tell Cohen to step aside so that the reader can see these desperately ill people without his shadow falling across them. And indeed, when he occasionally does get out of the way the stories assume their true power. He accompanies Denise, for instance, who is still in the early stages of ALS, to visit Neil, a former ophthalmologist whose ALS is so advanced that he's been in 'total lockdown' for four years, unable to move or speak or even blink his eyes. Cohen simply watches as Denise slowly steps back from Neil's bed in fear, 'seeking distance' from what seems a vision of her own future, 'longing to be invisible.' It's in moments like these that I found myself recalling Kleinman's story of the burned girl. I thought of the force that such stories of suffering bear, including those that Cohen tells here. But I also remembered how Kleinman didn't interrupt the girl once she started speaking. He just listened. Richard McCann, most recently the author of 'Mother of Sorrows,' is working on a memoir of his experience as a liver-transplant recipient." Reviewed by Richard McCann, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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The "New York Times" bestselling author of "Blindsided" offers an honest and inspirational perspective on living with chronic illness, witnessed through the lives of five remarkable individuals.
An extension of his New York Times bestselling book BLINDSIDED, author Richard Cohen depicts one year in the lives of five individuals and their families who are living with serious, chronic illness. These "citizens of sickness," as Cohen calls them, were selected for the diversity of their ages, races, socioeconomic positions, illness types, stages of wellness and gender. Cohen profiles:
andndash;Denise, a woman with ALS from suburban Los Angeles, California
andndash;Buzz, a man with nonandndash;Hodgkin's lymphoma from Franklin, Indiana
andndash;Sarah from Cleveland, Ohio, 27 years old, with Crohn's disease
andndash;Ben, an eighteenandndash;yearandndash;old college freshman at Saint Mary's College of Maryland, with muscular dystrophy
andndash;Larry from Cleveland, Georgia, with bipolar disorder
Intimately involved with every aspect of these five patients' lives, Cohen formed intense relationships with his subjects, interviewing their families and friends, shadowing them on the job, accompanying them to doctor's visits and being available and present for the important moments of daily triumphs and setbacks. Though each individual's illness wreaks havoc in a different way, there is much common ground to be found in the emotional impact of chronic illness and the need to rise above. Readers will be carried into the hearts and minds of those who cope with sickness daily and learn about selfandndash;determination, courage in the face of adversity and ignorance, keeping hope alive and finding strength and peace.
About the Author
Richard M. Cohen's distinguished career in journalism earned him numerous awards, including three Emmys and a George Foster Peabody Award. He lives outside New York City with his wife, Meredith Vieira, and their three children.
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