Not quite a memoir, not quite a collection of essays, Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am is a group of personal narratives recounting the times when her life edged dangerously close to death. The subtitle, “Seventeen Brushes with Death,” is powerful in itself, but even more so when you read what she experienced.
Each chapter begins with an illustration of a symbolic body part and the year of its occurrence. In “Neck,” O’Farrell, on a solo hike in 1990, fends off a man she chances upon in the woods. Later she reads that he was a serial killer who strangled his victims. Why was she spared and the others not? In “Lungs,” she’s with a group of friends on a summer night in 1988. She’s 16 and wants something, anything, to happen. Sitting on a harbor wall almost 50 feet above a turning tide, she impulsively jumps. Having battled a bout of often-deadly encephalitis in childhood, she’d been left with spatial recognition challenges, which meant she couldn’t sense the surface of the water and almost drowned. But she survived, as she does. As we do. Because how many times have we acted in a similarly foolish way and come out on the winning side, ignoring the threats everywhere because of our need to overlook the danger?
Inspired to write this for her daughter who is burdened with an auto-immune disorder, I Am, I Am, I Am defies categorization. Intensely personal yet somehow universal–and observing every detail, emotion, and vulnerability–O’Farrell presents a thorough appreciation of life by showing it can change in an instant.