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Book Review: ‘Sanctuary,’ by Emily Rapp Black

A Memoir
By Emily Rapp Black

On Jan. 10, 2011, Emily Rapp Black, a writer and creative writing instructor living in Santa Fe, took her infant son, Ronan, to the eye doctor. At 9 months old, the baby wasn’t hitting his developmental milestones and his pediatrician wanted to rule out vision problems. In Albuquerque, the ophthalmologist found “cherry red spots” on the backs of the baby’s retinas, and immediately diagnosed him with Tay-Sachs disease, a very rare, but inevitably fatal, genetic disorder. And the world tilted on its axis.

In her well-received 2013 book, “The Still Point of the Turning World,” written while Ronan was still alive, Black (who at the time used the name Emily Rapp) found beauty in stolen moments. She was able to derive lessons to learn and wisdom to share from the “terrible freedom” of parenting a child without a future and turned to writing as a way to “find underlying patterns of meaning in a situation that, from the outside, looked inviolate and incontrovertibly meaningless” — an endeavor that would ultimately give her a way to connect with and help others.

Her current memoir comes from a much darker place. It begins in the summer of 2012. Ronan is dying, and Black is actively considering a jump from the Rio Grande Gorge bridge. Her marriage has imploded — exploded, really — after the corrosive effects of too many days and nights of anger, guilt, resentment, exhaustion and, above all, a never-ending, all-consuming grief. Black’s coping mechanism has been desperate self-numbing — compulsive extramarital sex, extreme exercise, any sort of “tangible, identifiable, physical pain.” Her husband has fled into rage. Their self-immolation and ultimate split amount to “a rupture that a crater of any size in any ground and beneath any sky failed to accurately depict,” and in the aftermath, she has been left feeling mentally “fractured,” she writes. “My mind was shifting and molting as my life broke slowly apart, like some strange and painful rebirth, but with no imaginable future — for what mother can imagine a future without her child?”

[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of January. See the full list. ]

Black resists the pull of the river 565 feet below. And that choice — equal parts survival instinct and desire to live — marks a turning point in her trajectory. Ronan’s life can go only in one tragic direction — he died on Feb. 15, 2013, just before his third birthday — but Black’s refusal to die means that she can open up a little bit of space in which she can find “a way to live in the world,” as she puts it. And that space, in which life and death, love and loss, rage and happiness, pleasure and pain can tolerably intermingle, is the mourner’s sanctuary.

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