A Critical Distance, a Life-Saving Perspective

The Beauty in Breaking: A Memoir

“Even when everyone has the best of intentions, things can go terribly wrong.”

Michele Harper breaks the mold of a Harvard-educated emergency room physician. She’s a woman. She’s Black. And she is more concerned with empathetic treatments than the bureaucracy of hospital administration (an uncommon opinion). In her debut memoir, Harper takes readers on her medical journey, detailing her most impactful patients and how she overcame personal struggles, learning that in order to heal others she had to start by healing herself.

The Beauty in Breaking. By Michele Harper. Riverhead. 2020. Hardcover.

How did I get the book?

This summer, I subscribed to Book of the Month, because I for some reason didn’t think I had enough books lying around. This was my first pick. The service curates five, hardcover books every month to choose from as part of the subscription, plus add-ons if you want to get super wild. You can also skip a month if nothing strikes your fancy and pick two during another.

You can purchase the book for yourself here and support independent bookstores!

What did I think?

The memoir begins with Harper introducing her tumultuous childhood in Washington, D.C. with her mother, brother, and abusive father. It’s a situation for which from the age of seven Harper blames herself and from which she constantly seeks out a sense of security. However, it also leads to Harper’s decision to become a doctor, a realization she comes to when in an emergency room with her brother following an attack from their father. “Unlike in the war zone that was my childhood, I would be in control,” Harper says, thinking about her future doctor self, “providing relief or at least a reprieve to those who called out for help. I would see to it that there was shelter in the spaces of which I was the guardian.”

Harper works hard to accomplish this dream despite hurdles and prejudices working against her. “As a black woman, I navigate an American landscape that claims to be post-racial when every waking moment reveals the contrary,” she writes, arguing that the glass ceiling she is up against is nearly impentratable. “As I noted the contrast of my dark wrists extending from the cuffs of my stark white coat, I was reminded of which costumes in America, even in the twenty-first century, are seen as legitimate and which are not.” Harper also pushes against endless failures in the medical system, realizing that practicing medicine is often no different from working in the service industry. She struggles with emergency departments’ expectations for doctors to numb to their work and to focus more on the number of patients they help rather than the quality of care. “I was ashamed that I had been made to feel so weak in my position of supposed power,” Harper finds, linking the sensation to systemized oppression, especially for patients of color or who are mentally ill and therefore viewed as more threatening.

As she seeks out solutions for her professional struggles, Harper discovers the answer might be in her solving her personal problems. “If we humans were to expand our definitions of healing, there could actually be a great deal more of it,” she writes as she works to accept the end of her marriage and forgive her father, choosing to have power over what nurtures her instead of carrying resentment. “There are risks and benefits to both the action and the inaction, so the critical question before either is chosen is whether action is truly necessary.” Through this work of determining where to hold strong and where to let go, Harper reaffirms that her calling is to heal, but also that there is nothing to be ashamed of in needing to start over. “In life,” she writes, “even greater brilliance can be found after the mending…We always have the choice to start again, to bind again exquisitely.”

Final Verdict?

🌟 2.5/5 — Average

Although they could have used some editorial shaping, the profiles Harper includes of some of her patients were the parts of the memoir I found the strongest; from Honor, the military veteran suffering from PTSD after being raped by her commander, to Paul, a schizophrenic man who is charged with murder. “I write about these moments so we always remember the power of our actions,” Harper explains, “so we always remember that beneath the most superficial layer of our skin, we are all the same. In that sameness is our common entitlement to respect, our human entitlement to love.” Unfortunately, Harper struggles to connect these powerful stories with her own, resulting in awkward transitions between her work and her personal lives. The rare moments where we see her not at the hospital—making a latenight soup dinner or practicing yoga—do little to shape an understanding of her outside of being a doctor.

This is likely why I struggled to feel invested in Harper’s own story, which is an important feature of memoir. “It was probably exactly because the challenges I'd faced had taken me to the brink of despair that I had been able to uncover a newfound freedom,” Harper writes as she finds peace, but I never experienced this change with her due to the distance at which she keeps the reader so the impact was nonexistant. I wanted to see the titular breaking so I could really admire the beauty. I wanted Harper to mess up a little more than she does, too, to show some of the damage she talks around. I constantly felt that she was holding something back, that for as much as she preaches about the need to allow ourselves to fray, tear, and start a new, that perhaps she hasn’t fully been able to do so herself.

Beyond the book.

Harper is still a practicing emergency doctor, which means she has been working on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic. On The Daily Show, Trevor Noah spoke with her about this plus her debut memoir. I can’t even imagine trying to promote a book while also trying to save lives during a global health crisis…

I should also add that even though this book did not inspire me, it has been effective for a number of other readers. The New York Times selected it for their Group Text column, as did lululemon, who yes, in addition to yoga pants have a book club focused on mindfulness. If you’re on the fence, the National Arts Club did an extensive event and reading with Harper last month. Watch for a taste to decide if you want to fully commit.

See you again soon!

Rachel x