by Jerry Waxler
Jon Reiner’s intestines were riddled with the autoimmune condition called Crohn’s Disease, a cruel punishment for a man who enjoys food as much as he does. His memoir, “The Man Who Couldn’t Eat,” turned out to be a gut-wrenching journey through one of the most yin and yang dilemmas I have read in nonfiction. It is an exquisite interweaving of the intense pleasure of eating along with the intense suffering that results when his body rebels. The book is also about love and marriage, about a man’s responsibility to his family, and about a chronically ill person attempting to find meaning in life. Here are 10 things memoir lovers will appreciate in “The Man Who Couldn’t Eat.”
Intertwining of food, life, and pleasure
Even though I obsessively try to understand what makes people tick, the one huge area that escapes my attention is food. To me, food is a source of constant battle between satisfying craving and avoiding fat. This simplistic attitude has left me starved of thoughts about food’s more sublime social and psychological roles.
Reiner has filled me up. By showing me what it’s like not to eat, Reiner takes me on a meditation through these intricate byways of our relationship with food, serving up a banquet of thoughts about this intensely human experience. Here are just a few of the many aspects of food that Jon Reiner shares with brilliant, artistic writing.
— The tastes and textures of foods that he loves
— Food shopping as a way to serve his family
— Preparing food as a romantic collaboration with his wife
— Feeding and nurturing his children pulls the whole family together
— Eating together creates a social bonding among friends
How does food enter into your life during the period you want to write about?
Learn about the emotional burdens of being chronically ill
While Jon Reiner defends himself against a deadly intestinal condition called Crohn’s, an even more important battle rages in his mind. He must somehow stop the disease from sucking all the joy from his family and activities. His effort to maintain dignity becomes a crucial step. When he wins the mental game, his life began to fall into place.
Some branches of the medical community acknowledge the mental aspect of chronic illness. To learn more about this introspective approach, read “Full Catastrophe Living,” in which psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn helps patients learn to live fully despite their physical symptoms.
What situation have you been unable to change, and as a result, had to learn to live with?
An insider’s look at intestinal disease
More than a million people in the United States suffer from inflammatory intestinal disease, and yet, unless you are a healthcare provider, you probably know little about it. Jon Reiner turned the suffering of the illness into a story that the rest of us can appreciate, opening a window into their world.
What sort of specialized condition or situation could your own story show other people? (War, disease, culture, hobby, belief system, family, group, etc.)
Language arts draw me forward
Delicious taste adds to the pleasure of eating, and spicy language adds to the pleasure of reading. Jon Reiner’s word choices, sentences, and metaphors fly beyond the limits of ordinary thought, and make the book fun to read. The richness of language entices me to turn the page, eager to see what comes next.
Story structure: powerful beginning
The book begins with Jon Reiner collapsed, writhing in pain alone in his apartment. The incident starts the whole book moving. His delirium also provides an opportunity to weave in enough backstory to set the stage. The decision about where to start a memoir can be the hardest decision a memoir writer has to make. This memoir’s structure provides a brilliant and well-crafted example.
Story Structure: moving, philosophical ending
Reiner’s whole story is about facing a painful, life threatening, impossible-to-cure disease. Throughout the book, naturally he looks for a cure, but he also attempts to make sense of his situation. Books that ask such large questions often end with a philosophical denouement that sticks with you long after you finish reading. Jon Reiner’s ending is superb and inspiring. He teaches thoughtful lessons and leaves me with the sense that he is a better person than he was at the beginning. When he makes sense of his life, I feel a surge of hope that others can do the same. Good denouements lead to enthusiastic book recommendations.
Kate Braestrup, in “Here if you Need Me,” provides another profoundly philosophical denouement. In her case, after grieving for her lost husband, she makes observations about the meaning of good and evil.
Blog Post: Ten Reasons I Loved Man Who Couldn’t Eat, Part 2
Click here for Jon Reiner’s Home Page
Click here for The Man Who Couldn’t Eat on Amazon
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