This Is How I Save My Life: From California to India, a True Story of Finding Everything When You Are Willing to Try Anything by Amy B. Scher
At the beginning of Amy Scher’s memoir, This is How I save My Life, she is riddled with pain, weakened in every muscle of her body. Her young life is drowning in a blur of doctors, medications, and crises. She has tried everything. Nothing works. But she, and her parents, are not ready to give up.
And then, along comes an experimental stem-cell treatment at a small clinic in New Delhi, India. Really? Is she going to risk her life to save her life? As a reader, I’m skeptical. If she’s already tried the best doctors, why will this method work? But I like her writing, and I like her challenge, so I keep reading.
When she lands in Delhi, she has to adjust to the assault on her senses, colors, smells, noise. So what does she do? She manages, amazingly to turn Delhi, India into a character with a personality all its own. The way she portrays India is unique, interesting… and alive!!! It seems like everyone in India is painting outside the lines. And everywhere she turns, India is beckoning to her to let go of her rigid preconceptions and join in its exuberant chaos. I fell in love with Amy Scher’s personalization of Delhi. But wait there’s more.
At the clinic where her treatment will be administered, she meets an ensemble cast of patients and caregivers. To bring this experience to the reader, she repeats the same brilliant technique she used for Delhi. She turns the clinic into a character, too. In this way, she makes her trip so much more easily understandable. As characters, both the city and the clinic, offer lessons, joy, and companionship.
Reading this memoir reminds me of the importance of good writing – she provides humor, insight, and some of the most artfully interwoven backstory I’ve ever seen. And while all these features make the book easy and enjoyable to read, the highlight of this memoir is her journey of self-discovery. She constructed her story arc so well, I offer it as a “textbook” example of the story arcs at the heart of every good memoir.
Every memoir needs three basic components
First, every memoir needs to start with a high stakes question. Amy Scher’s debilitating illness is a perfect setup to capture our attention. However, spoiler alert, this initial challenge is a moving target. As the story proceeds, the challenge gradually shifts. I’ll have more to say about this challenge in a moment.
Second, as she moves toward resolving the problem, the author must encounter many obstacles. Her illness provides a constant stream of setbacks. Other setbacks arise from the discomfort, anxiety, and adjustment to such an exotic environment. So this requirement is satisfied as well.
Third, as she confronts each obstacle, she must exert psychological and emotional effort required to move from initial problem, through the obstacles, toward a conclusion. We want to see how our hero will push through all the obstacles in order to reach the conclusion.
While This is How I Save my Life perfectly exemplifies these three essential parts, Amy Scher modifies the formula a little and in the process makes its story arc exceptional.
At the start of the book, her main challenge seems to be medical. So if that continued to be the main challenge, the conclusion would be a cure. Naturally, as a compassionate human being, I would be thrilled to see the author throw away her pill bottles and get up and dance. But memoir readers tend to want to learn about psychological, social, or moral self-development. Memoir readers are actually psychology geeks – we have a thirst for understanding how people grow.
This notion of a character growing wiser, or more mature, or more accepting during the course of a memoir is one of my favorite things about the genre. I believe that the whole genre is devoted to reminding our culture of a simple concept about being human that has been lost in the hectic pace of modern times: that is, that adults can continue to grow throughout their lives.
Memoirs chart a path to the high road
I claim that memoir readers long to witness this feature of human courage – we want to admire people who climb to a higher elevation. But until the Memoir Revolution, our culture offered only a tiny handful of metaphors to help us visualize our upward moral mobility. In fact, I can only think of two.
In the Japanese culture, you take your shoes off when entering the home in order to symbolize that you are going to a higher spiritual plane. Just a step higher, but to a different plane. So simple, and yet it says so much. Similarly, when I heard Martin Luther King’s exhortation to “take the high road,” I knew exactly what he meant. There is some higher elevation that we all know about. And yet if we all know about the importance of the high road, why does the modern, educated Western world invite so little discourse about it? As a culture, we are suffering from a poverty of insight into the path to the high road.
That impoverishment ended when we began reading memoirs. Each one is a roadmap of one author’s journey toward their higher inner qualities. In a sense, the genre is a sort of human university, and by immersing ourselves in the stories of people who have gone through these journeys, we have discovered a language of hope and courage at the heart of the human condition.
Until the Memoir Revolution, few of us had thought about our own life transitions in these terms. We lived, year after year, and filed away memories in their messy repository, only jumping out randomly, or during a conversation.
And so, chances are that when you read your first few dozen memoirs, you had a hard time fathoming how these particular authors had arrived at a coherent, readable account. Who were these unusual individuals, you might have asked? What made them so unique? But when you look more carefully, you realize they started out just like you, with a pile of memories and then years working out how the past fit together into a good story.
Once you decide it might be worthwhile for you to do something similar, at first all you have are a pile of disorganized memories as well. They have no inherent organization. Rather these bits of your past will only acquire the organizational framework of “story” after you’ve taken a lengthy, verbal journey to put the pieces together in a new form.
Read memoirs to learn how to find your own map
To help you find the wisdom embedded in your own life, take some time to make more sense of the memoirs you read. In each one, review how the author went from the challenge at the beginning, to a satisfying conclusion at the end. As you understand the way they portrayed their character arc, you can begin to do thought experiments, to see which parts of your life might line up accordingly. Amy Scher’s storyline offers a great example of the hope and courage available within the genre.
When the book starts, the main goal of the protagonist is to heal her physical disease. As the story proceeds, she gradually shifts her goal from the medical problem of curing a disease to a psychological and spiritual quest to become a better person. That gradual shift from curing a physical disease at the beginning, to her growing awareness of her psychological well-being by the end creates an exceptionally clever story arc.
So if you were looking for a recipe for healing chronic life-wrecking Lyme disease the story might be a bit disappointing. But if you are looking for a story about a really sick person coming to some sort of spiritual understanding of the healing process, you will find this book exciting and uplifting.
But when you take off your white coat, leave the lab and enter the streets of Delhi, life is no longer even remotely predictable. And what had begun as an attempt for a medical cure turned out to be a pilgrimage, whose ultimate lesson was that it’s okay to let go. And like heroes throughout the ages, once she learned her lesson she returned to the world to let the rest of us know.
One problem with this East Meets West lesson about reality is that we Westerners are afraid that if we let go of too much, chaos would ensue. There is no easy way to reconcile that fear, but if you want to find a good way to gather the two ways of looking at the world and hold them within the embrace of one good story, read Amy Scher’s memoir.
Instead of teaching us about one or two of India’s spiritual belief systems, she exposes the roots of those beliefs. India teaches her that to find her new truths, she must break through old boundaries. This is in a sense the very foundation of the Hero’s Journey – the hero must “go forth into the land of adventure” in other words, to start the journey the Hero must “let go.”
As she proceeds through the course of her treatment, she gradually discovers that it’s not the medicine that is healing her. The healing results from the courage to let go.
In her memoir, the mystical magic of India emerges organically, directly from its culture of acceptance, of controlled chaos, of believing that the truth is there waiting for you if you just let it in. In her own unique, subtle, innovative way, she shows the path to healing is through acceptance – once you let go, you let in the light.
What if letting go leads to chaos
This idea of letting go of emotional control is foreign to the educated Western mind. Still reeling from the cultural horror of the Dark Ages, we grow up believing that science is the bulwark against ignorance. Thanks to the great promises of analytical thinking, if you know the mathematical formula you can predict the exact trajectory. If you construct a proper experiment, you arrive at the best truth.
When you leave the sterile research lab with its white coats and controlled variables and enter the streets of Delhi, life is far messier than Western science would lead us to believe. Even in high school physics they taught me that the predictions only work when you ignore the messy details. And in medicine, the complexities of the body often outstrip the skills of the body.
So we’re stuck in an impasse. Western science is a bulwark against ignorance, except when it’s not. And Eastern (Indian) thinking is too wild, too out-of-the-box, to uncontrolled. This is where Amy Scher story introduces us to ideas that easily cross between the two cultures.
While it is lovely to appreciate Amy’s story as a literary experience, it’s even more intriguing when you can extend these insights into a framework that will make sense to your Western trained mind. If you want a little guidance, consider this quote. Dan P. MacAdams is a psychologist who has spent his life exploring how our individual sense of self, our very personhood, is wrapped up in the stories we tell about ourselves. In his book called The Stories We Live By he calls upon Western psychology to explain why Amy Scher’s ending feels so right.
The principle at the heart of This is How I Saved My Life is that the stories we live by must have flexibility and expansiveness in them if we intend to be mentally healthy. When Amy Scher ventured forth to India in the hopes of finding her own truth she had to let go of the crazy notion that she knew everything.
Amy went on a pilgrimage, on a hero’s journey, to learn these lessons. She didn’t learn them from Dan MacAdams’ graduate Psychology classes on personality formation. Instead she learned them from the citizens of India who must embrace ambiguity in order to survive. Then she brought back her truth the way heroes are supposed to do. In Amy Scher’s story, the notion of letting go is indeed revealed as a beautiful truth in its own right.
The mix of East Meets West proposed by Amy Scher’s memoir is innovative, in the same way the music and culture of the sixties led to innovative mind expanding perspectives. It took an expansive, open mind to follow the artistryof Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar’s famous mashup. If you are ready to go for a similar expansive journey into the intersection of the two cultures through Story, take a deep breath and go for a ride through This is How I Save My Life.
If you have been trained in Western thinking, you might find it a bit scary. What if we “let go” too much? The dilemma between too much control and too little does not lend itself to an easy answer. But if you want to find a good way to gather the two ways of looking at the world, and hold them in your mind within the embrace of one good story, read Amy Scher’s memoir.