[TW: This post and the narrative of the story center around cancer, trauma, and illness]
I’m a memoir gal through and through. They make me feel less alone, even when the author and I have lived vastly different lives. There’s something about the vulnerability memoirs offer. Especially when the day-to-day can feel as if we’re forced to uphold a façade of happiness. (Thanks, social media.)
I’ve developed a fondness for cancer memoirs in particular. I lost my grandmother to uterine cancer when I was 11, and memoirs provide insight into the physical pain she underwent.
Not to mention the emotional challenges that accompany a cancer diagnosis. So when a friend recommended Between Two Kingdoms, I instantly put it on hold at the library. (And later purchased my own copy, ’cause it was that good.)
Its author, Suleika Jaouad, answers a question that a lot of people tend to gloss over in the cancer world. The prevailing narrative is that remission is the endpoint. That once the malignant cells die away, a person is back to their old self. But what really happens once remission is achieved? How do you enter the world of “the living” again, and reclaim a semblance of your normal life?
Imagine this. You’re twenty-two, just moved to Paris, and are in an exciting new relationship. Baguettes, wine, and ample cuddles from your beau form the foundation of your existence. Life’s good. No — life’s a dream.
But then the rash and fatigue you’d chalked off to stress and excessive partying don’t seem to let up. In fact, they proliferate into fevers and anemia. You can’t deny the fact that you feel completely unlike yourself.
French physicians can’t determine the cause, so you’re sent back to the states. And that’s when the truth hits. You’re diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, with a 35% chance of long-term survival. This is the blunt reality that Suleika faces.
Over the next four years, Suleika endures grueling chemotherapy, a clinical trial, life-threatening infections, and a bone marrow transplant. She’s tested in more ways than one, from navigating a body that feels as if it’s revolting against her, to grappling with strained relationships.
However, the most difficult part of Suleika’s cancer journey comes after she attains remission. Doctors send her on her way, back into a world where most people her age have been living active lives, juggling careers, and entering marriages.
Suleika is hit with a level of disorientation she hadn’t anticipated. There’s no plan of action when it comes to reclaim her “life interrupted.” No way to navigate the grief and PTSD that engulfs her. No understanding of who she is now.
Seeking answers and clarity, Suleika embarks upon a road trip across the United States. She visits many of the people who wrote to her during her treatment (she had a column in the New York Times). Her travels ensue in sojourns with fellow cancer survivors, and with people who have had their own lives interrupted in a significant manner.
These new friends impart wisdom upon her, sharing how they navigated their own roadblocks in life. This allows Suleika to embark upon the journey of healing emotionally. She’s finally given the space to move forward and carve out terrain for the new version of herself.
Ultimately, Suleika finds that the line between the sick and the well is “porous.” That the majority of us will spend our time on earth oscillating between these “two kingdoms,” finding our paths halted by illness, loss, or other life-altering traumas.
A large chunk of this book focuses on Suleika’s post-remission life. I think a lot of people expect life to return to the way it was after any kind of trauma — be it an illness, injury, or anything else.
And it can be frustrating when others still cling onto an old version of the person who’s gone through the challenge. But Suleika highlights the fact that this simply isn’t so. She talks about the idea of post-traumatic growth, using adverse experiences to reshape one’s outlook on life.
“I used to think healing meant ridding the body and the heart of anything that hurt. It meant putting your pain behind you, leaving it in the past. But I’m learning that’s not how it works. Healing is figuring out how to coexist with the pain that will always live inside of you, without pretending it isn’t there…”
As a writer, I also resonated with the focus Suleika places on the written word. During her cancer journey, it felt like her life was being scripted by forces beyond her, that the story to which she’d become attached was being rewritten.
By sharing her experiences as a New York Times columnist, and then in her memoir, she takes ownership of her narrative. She’s able to tell things from her stance, the way that she’s seen and experienced them. And this is empowering. Ultimately, writing allows her to connect with others, as well as herself.
The book places a large emphasis on relationships — those lost, those gained, and those strained. Anything as magnanimous as cancer has the potential to reshape the landscape of a person’s social life. Some friends will pull away, others may come out from the shadows.
Family members and significant others can face caregiver burnout. Suleika demonstrates that the hardships we face, though they can often feel lonely, never exist in a vacuum. They ripple out to those in our lives, whether we are aware of it or not.
This memoir will be with me for a long time. It’s one of those books that you highlight and take notes from, because of it’s ability to extract from the inner depths of the author. From places many of us seldom give ourselves permission to go within ourselves.
P.S. If you’re into journaling, I strongly recommend Suleika’s newsletter. Her quarantine project, the Isolation Journals, delivers thought-provoking journal prompts to your inbox each Sunday.