Book Review: How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences

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How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences by Sue William Silverman

198 pp, ISBN 9781496214096, University of Nebraska Press, 2020

     As doctors, we see death. We predict it. We diagnose it. We hold death’s hand and comfort those left behind in its wake. For Sue William Silverman, death is also ever-present. But not because she’s a doctor. She is not. We know one kind of death. Silverman knows another. One that is close. One that lurks. One that is coming for her. How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences is a memoir told in linked essays that explores this theme.

     Her first experience of death comes when she is sexually abused by her father at the age of four. First, he builds her a beautiful paper house complete with paper furniture and a paper father, mother and two paper sisters. That night, he climbs into bed with her and molests her. Silverman rips a tiny tear in her paper doll’s neck, then tapes up the rent  before hiding her in a jewelry box “where no one will find her. No one can touch her.” She adds “my father will never notice the small rips and tears in his nonpaper daughter’s body.”  Through those rips and tears slipped a piece of her soul.

     Silverman’s second brush with death is more harrowing still: a rape under a New Jersey boardwalk as a young teenager along with its resultant miscarriage, both of which she suffers completely alone. She describes the “knife-thin man with the flint-cold eyes”, the way “feet stumble, dizzy and upended, the girl’s body consisting of disjointed parts” beginning in perhaps the only way she can: a detached third person. Continuing the piece in a searing first person account as he “unzips my soul.”  Returning to third. “A wisp of a soul levitates from a somatic body.”

     In her quest to stave off death and deal with her myriad traumas, Silverman turns her pain inward toward herself. Through eating disorders and sex addictions, she tries to reconcile the pain she experienced in her youth with the woman she has become. In one essay, Silverman relates to the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer as a fellow damaged soul. In a letter to him, she writes, “Have I abandoned myself? I thought my parents, my sister, the white stallion in the West Indies, my piano, the Poet, the doctor in the blue convertible—all of them—abandoned me. And maybe they did. But now I’ve lost myself, my true self, to this addiction…addiction, a form of suicide, another diagnosis for death.”

     In the end, it is words that save Silverman. The strategy she uses to avert death is to live metaphorically. She uses words—obsolete, archaic, obscure—to preserve memories and in so doing, she hopes to preserve herself.

          Vacivity: emptiness

          Appetency: a longing or desire

          Orison: a prayer

     In one of the last chapters, she flees an unhappy marriage to return to Galveston. As she stands on the beach, she thinks about her young self on a Caribbean shore, her teenage self on that fateful Jersey boardwalk, her younger Galveston self as a young married woman with “a sorrow too intense to carry all of it with me when I moved away.” She hopes to morph all of these past versions together to form a complete self, whole and healed. Of course it is not that young runaway on a Texas Gulf who reaches those conclusions. It is the mature writer, wielding her pen as we do scalpel and suture, who carves that gift of grace for herself, finding her own meaning “in the wake of these words.”