By Zvi Erenyi
Collection Development and Reference Librarian Mendel Gottesman Library
On March 2, 2021,at the third in a series of Yeshiva University Libraries’ Spring Book Talks, Dr. Joanne Jacobson read excerpts from her recently published Every Last Breath: A Memoir of Two Illnesses (Salt Lake City : University of Utah Press, 2020). She was then interviewed by Dr. Lauren Fitzgerald, professor of English and Director of the Wilf Campus Writing Center.
Dr. Joanne Jacobson is Professor Emerita of English and former associate dean for academic affairs at Yeshiva College, where she taught American studies, American literature, and nonfiction writing, and also served as director of the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program. Her previous books include Hunger Artist: A Suburban Childhood (Huron : Bottom Dog Press, 2007).
Dr. Jacobson began by reading several passages from Every Last Breath that, despite her even and sober tone, effectively communicated through keen insight the emotional cascades she experienced through her mother’s and then her own illness. Despite the serious, not to say life-threatening, nature of her and her mother’s situations, she was able to note and record some lighter, more affirmative episodes.
Dr. Fitzgerald followed up with a number of penetrating questions.
What is the target audience for the book?
Now that we’ve experienced a pandemic for an entire year, Dr. Jacobson hoped that her book “will help us to know how it feels to be a patient, to be suffering an illness and to acknowledge our bodies’ fragility.”
What was your process of writing like, and how did you adapt and change it as you went along?
Dr. Jacobson answered that her writing attempted to capture moments she recognized as charged with emotion, as worth writing about.
Do you have any advice to prospective non-fiction writers?
Dr. Jacobson stressed bravery in being willing to confront “feelings you wish you did not have.” Otherwise, it would be difficult to compose interestingly and compellingly without such a confrontation.
Dr. Fitzgerald noted how the book’s prose nevertheless showed rhythmic and lyrical poetic characteristics and was unafraid to use humor, including making the author herself the object of the humor, in otherwise grave situations.
Dr. Jacobson attributed the lyrical quality of her writing to her attraction to music and the large part it had played in her early life. She admitted to the difficulty she had in writing in the first person and about someone (her mother) who did not really wish to be written about; her shame at being a patient (she thought she’d rather die than be taken out on a stretcher at rush hour and be gawked at by passersby); and her embarrassment at having to wear a hospital gown.
A fundamental truth of her illness? The experience irrevocably changed her life. Dr. Jacobson added that contemporary culture has made subjects like illness and death uncomfortable—a trend that changed only within the last 15 years. She affirmed a need for a greater openness about and realization of our bodies and for an understanding that not every story or illness has a favorable outcome.
In that case, Dr. Jacobson was finally asked, what would she consider as closure? “To be better. But then, so much of modern illness has become a chronic affair, with each person experiencing it differently.”
Interestingly, she mentioned Lawrence Langer’s Holocaust Testimonies (New Haven : Yale University Press, 1991), in which the author remarked on the reluctance of most Holocaust survivors to tell their stories because they felt that to create a narrative meant to abandon what was most traumatic about their experiences, i.e., these actually lacked narrative or meaning. Perhaps, said Dr. Jacobson, some things cannot be converted into a story, which by nature possesses a form.