The Beauty in Breaking, by Michele Harper
As a black woman, I navigate an American landscape that claims to be post-racial when every waking moment reveals the contrary, an American landscape that requires all women to pound tenaciously against the proverbial glass ceiling, which we’ve since discovered is made of palladium, the kind of glass that would sooner bow than shatter.
Dr. Michele Harper’s memoir The Beauty in Breaking is a look inside her work as an ER physician in Philadelphia and Bronx hospitals, and a chronicle of how she moved beyond a major upset in her life — her marriage ending just as she was moving cities for a new job. It’s one of those stories of life not turning out as you planned or expected and how she coped, with lessons culled from her work in medicine and healing. She also looks at unequal medical treatment based on skin color, and her own difficulties as a Black woman working in a white, male-dominated field.
It begins with scenes from her childhood home in Washington, DC, where her father, also a physician, subjected his family to harrowing abuse. Calling the police only resulted in the threat of arresting her older brother, who tried to defend her mother.
But she identifies this time as helping her develop “a personal state of stillness,” an undoubtedly helpful quality to have. This writing about her family was some of the book’s strongest, and I thought somewhat unusual. It’s blunt and not the most popular opinion, I think, but it speaks powerfully for others who have cut ties with toxic relatives.
About her father, she says he “assert[ed] some type of genetic imperative to maintain a connection to one’s family” — that spoke to me as something that keeps so many people unhappily and unhealthily linked to family members who only know how to hurt or abuse. I loved how she described her feelings and the actions she took to preserve herself and her wellbeing. It was brave to do and brave to write about. She says her father was long unable to own up to what he’d been responsible for, and “it is better to be left with a ghost than a ghoul, so his disappearance from my life was an acceptable outcome.”
She attended Harvard University and advanced through medical school and post-study training, but upheaval in her adult life came when her husband abruptly walked away from their marriage. An independent filmmaker, he felt her career advancing but with a certain rigidity, meaning she’d be tethered to a place and timelines. His wasn’t going as well, and he wanted the freedom of moving abroad, or pursuing opportunities to grow his own career.
They divorced and she moved from the Bronx to Philadelphia to take a job in a hospital ER, a move they’d coordinated together and which she suddenly, unexpectedly had to navigate alone. It’s these kind of heartbreaking situations that you never imagine finding yourself in that can lead to the most personal growth, and the book is a testament to that.
After beautiful writing establishing who she is and her background, and eliding some parts of her educational journey (about Harvard, she only acknowledges that there’s a lot she could say about what it was like for a Black woman but doesn’t explore that here), it’s structured by telling one ER patient’s story each chapter, closing with the lessons this helped her learn about herself and apply to life and greater goals of being a healer, while simultaneously healing herself during a tumultuous phase of life.
I was disappointed because this had moments of five-star material, but especially towards the end it started running out of steam. The spiritual elements take center stage, which was frustrating because of course it’s her story and what’s helped her, but I find that it says comparatively little to cycle through platitudes about heart, spirit, strength, opening yourself, and so on compared to elsewhere, when she writes so singularly and powerfully about choices and actions.
This might be because I don’t read self-help; I have a feeling this is the kind of content for readers who derive comfort from these kind of warming assurances. Which is fine! I just prefer writing like what I’ve quoted — maybe a more psychological parsing of experience. When she does that it’s extraordinary, which is probably why it felt underwhelming to read about breathing or yoga.
The writing is also weaker in parts, which feels more like a failure of editing. She’s not a writer by profession, so to write gorgeously when she does is just a bonus, but the polish and eloquence elsewhere means it stands out when unedited or overwritten, like using odd adverbs and verbs (“liberated” from a seatbelt in a moment that required no such drama, overly melodramatic descriptions of coffee “kissed” by cream and sugar, etc.) Some dialogue feels a bit invented too.
I point these things out because they detracted for me from stories that I think are incredibly important, and are in spots so beautifully, richly told. It gave me chills and had me choked up more than once. She comes across as a deeply compassionate, intuitive person who’s found her calling and fulfillment in a healing profession that’s helped her heal herself. It’s a beautiful thing to witness. And these stories are important to read in the moment too, as she recounts incidents like refusing to examine a patient against his will despite police insistence, and despite other physicians readily doing so. I wish more doctors had the patience, listening ability, and consideration of broader issues that she does. She’s a remarkable asset to her profession.
The Beauty in Breaking: A Memoir
by Michele Harper
published July 7, 2020 by Riverhead