The memoirist talks medical mysteries, anxiety, and engaging with readers as a multifaceted Black woman.
Full disclosure: Taylor Harris was in the first class I taught in the Writing Program at Johns Hopkins. I knew from day one, when I threw 16 carrots on the conference table and asked the students to take one and write a character description, that Taylor (who described her carrot as having nappy hair) would be a superstar. Throughout the semester, she wrote about her family, her faith, and anything else I threw at her with grace, humor, and a deep-rooted poignancy that belied her sunny face.
Those qualities — elusive for so many memoirists — join forces in Harris’ exquisite first book, This Boy We Made: A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics, and Facing the Unknown, which chronicles a mother’s journey to diagnose her 22-month-old son, Tophs, who wakes up one day listless and unresponsive. What follows is not only a bureaucratic nightmare (trying to navigate healthcare systems that can be ruthless to Black families) but a personal one, as well, when Harris discovers something unexpected about her own health.
When we talked a few years ago, you were struggling with whether to write a book about Tophs. You’d written essays about your own struggles with anxiety and about your search to diagnose Tophs, but not a deep dive into either subject. What or who convinced you?
I was kicking around the idea, wondering if my story of motherhood really had roots. Then I got the results of my son’s genetic testing, which had direct implications for my own medical care. The lab found Tophs had a genetic mutation he’d inherited from me, so then I had to contact my sisters and parents about getting tested. You get one phone call from a genetic counselor and suddenly you’re moving backwards up your family tree, warning everyone about potential risk for illness. Something about the depth and breadth of that process helped me understand this story had roots.
This memoir reads as so immediate, almost like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Was it important for you to have this feel of portraying a life-and-death experience for the reader?
Sometimes, I forget how immediate a scene can read because I’ve revised it and ruminated over it so much. But in a weird way, I like when a reader feels some of that twisting in their gut. It sounds bad, but maybe it’s evidence they’re connecting to the text, connecting to our story. Writing a book certainly challenged me to craft scenes as though they were unfolding in real time. If I was going to keep a reader for nearly 300 pages, I had to let them feel the highs and lows and bumps along with the dreaded waiting.
What’s it been like for you to face your public after so much pandemic-enforced isolation? Do you feel exposed or supported or a little of both?
Reading my own writing can be like listening to a recording of my nasally voice, so sometimes I hide from my own work. But then I’ll be driving and suddenly remember I wrote about gas-station condoms! And excessive colostrum! I am the wife of a pastor, and this is what I gave the people? Look, I’m prone to feel shame. I don’t need any help in that category. But readers haven’t made me feel that way. I feel very supported by all the texts and direct messages and reviews. It’s really my own inner critic that I must face. I must tell myself I wrote the story that needed to be written. It might not be an instant bestseller, and maybe the pope won’t use it in a homily, but I did the thing I needed to do.
When I was hit by a car and preparing to go to trial, my lawyer had me read the police and medical reports in the days after my accident. It was one of the most traumatizing — and re-traumatizing — experiences for me. I’m assuming you also had to take in a lot. What was that experience like, and how did you use it to inform your narrative?
Such a good question. Sometimes, I forget how much research I did for this book. I read through my own records from childhood, then Tophs’, and my records as an adult patient. The records helped me nail down the facts and timeline. No book is perfect, but I wanted my memories to be well supported by appointments and diagnoses I could point to. Then there were the videos of Tophs stored on my computer and iPhone. And those really got to me. Watching my husband’s feet rush along our bedroom floor before he angles the iPhone at Tophs’ face to capture a seizure. Hearing me trying to soothe Tophs in the background, unzipping the glucometer, hoping to get a blood-sugar reading to understand why he’s seizing in the first place. To relive that panic and concurrently wonder if he’ll seize again is sort of torture. I underestimated the weight I’d feel in my body and limbs as I did my best to honor my beautiful boy through my writing. I found I had to take breaks as I wrote, just to sit with what’s hard about illness and our fragile bodies.
I found a publisher and editor who were willing to let me bring all the things to bear here. I am a woman. I am a Black woman. I am a highly educated Christian Black woman with an anxiety disorder and expectations galore and access to health insurance and amazing Black doctor friends who help coach me through the system that wasn’t built for people like me. I am a woman with great ambitions who also really wanted to stay home with my kids for a time. I am a woman who thinks Dansko clogs are funny. I wanted to bring all of me and all of Tophs to the page. The medical mystery drives the narrative, certainly, but the reader has to be willing to engage with my thoughts on systemic racism, microaggressions, faith, mental illness, and much more.
Lastly, our late Hopkins’ writing program director David Everett was always a huge voice in both our heads. Did you hear him when writing this?
I heard David saying, “Being literary and funny is hard, but if anyone can do it, I think you can.” Man, I loved that guy and the way he opened class with drumsticks and a word like “paradiddle.” I miss him so much, and I dreamt of handing him the book. And how he’d tear up just a little. I’ve been influenced by so many writers, but David was the person I really missed being able to hand a copy of my debut and say, “I couldn’t have done this without you.”
Cathy Alter is a member of the Independent’s board of directors and the author, most recently, of CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Power of Their First Celebrity Crush.