Breathless: An Asthma Journalby Louise A. DeSalvo
For acclaimed memoirist and biographer Louise DeSalvo, who was diagnosed several years ago with asthma, any moment can become a terrifying struggle for air. Here, she applies her searching mind and scholarship to untangle the connections between physical illness, childhood trauma, and the creative mind. 168 pp.
There is a semblance of a journal here, but structure is not literary biographer DeSalvo's (English/Hunter Coll.; Conceived with Malice, 1994, etc.) concern. The occasional dated entries indicate that in late 1991 she became ill and in mid-1992 was finally diagnosed as having asthma, a treatable but chronic condition that drastically altered how she lives and works. Probably only a working writer would seek to understand asthma by consulting the Oxford English Dictionary or diagramming the subtly different sentences "I have asthma" and "I am a person with asthma." And perhaps only a literary critic with asthma would feel compelled to read every book she can find by an asthmatic author or about an asthmatic character. The connection she feels with John Updike, Virginia Woolf, Isabel Allende, Elizabeth Bishop, and most of all Marcel Proust is evident as she studies how these writers interpreted and treated asthma and how it affected them. She discovers what she calls "an asthma underground," finding stories about asthma and breathing difficulties everywhere: on the radio, in newspapers, magazines, and journals. What she concludes from these accounts, and from her own personal history, is that asthma is probably a manifestation of post-traumatic stress and that it is caused by terror, trauma, and abuse. Somewhere in the asthmatic's background, she asserts, is an emotional, physical, sexual, or environmental crisis, during which the individual was too frightened to breathe. No matter that this argument is not persuasive, DeSalvo succeeds in making the asthmatic attackand the fear of onepalpable.
When a scholarly critic and biographer selects as her topic of study her own asthma, one can expect something other than a run-of-the-mill report. DeSalvo delivers.
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