“One can become quite used to the specter of the eternal Footman, like some lethal old bore lurking in the hallway at the end of the evening, hoping for the chance to have a word. And I don’t so much object to his holding my coat in such a manner, as if mutely reminding me that it’s time to be on my way. No, it’s the snickering that gets me down.”
-Christoper Hitchens, “Mortality”
When Nika Beamon first encountered Christopher Hitchens’ eternal Footman back in 1993, in the form of an extremely rare genetic disorder marked IgG4-related systemic disease (a “collection of letters and a number” that Ms. Beamon neglects to relate), I’m sure she never imagined that the two of them would become so intimately acquainted. After twenty years of fruitless searching for her enemy’s True Name amongst the collective shrugging of the medical community, combined with an endless barrage of spectacular medical debacles both intimate and highly public, all to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars and an ever-mounting deficit independence and self-sufficiency, Ms. Beamon seems to have developed a rather cozy relationship with Death, more than enough to speak on the subject from a position of considerable authority. Not everyone can hang their hat on the gallows with quite the breezy, eloquent air that the late Mr. Hitchens so graciously exhibited when diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2010 (spawning the book from which this review’s opening quote was culled), and Misdiagnosed: The Search For Dr. House tackles the subject with more brevity than wit; nevertheless, Beamon has managed to create a sturdy, simple, and immensely compelling narrative for anyone contemplating mortality - whether their own, or someone else’s.
Weighing in at 320 pages, Misdiagnosed is not an especially large book, but it would be easy to assume when reading the synopsis that it would be a fairly dense read, one that might even require a reference text (or two). It was a pleasant surprise to discover that this was not the case; Beamon’s illness isn’t on display so much as is her ability to endure the travailing circumstances surrounding it. To that end, the book provides an intensely visceral experience: from coitally-activated hemorrhaging to vomiting blood every morning to having a stroke on the highway to an endless whirlwind of hospital visits, Beamon describes in frank, excruciating detail the Sisyphean task of living under the burden of multi-symptomatic disease, and does so with little sense of sentimentality or self-pity. Across her life, the Footman’s gesture is a wide one: romances rise and fall, loved ones have their own brushes with death to varying ends, and her career suffers as a result of her condition, yet still she maintains her course. Perseverance of this scope is to be greatly admired, and could be even more greatly, if not for the fact that it resides against a backdrop of seemingly minimal introspection.
Misdiagnosed, for all of its muscular storytelling, offers a narrative that, while not at all impersonal, does come off as somewhat detached, with the author chalking her ability to survive mostly up to God, her family, and the man she spent the latter decade of her struggles with. While absolving herself of participation in her own survival might offer a convenient vehicle which the reader can easily step in to the driver’s seat of (I know I certainly did), this offers consolation without counsel; treating the symptoms and not the cause, so to speak. Hitchens wrote in Mortality that “(i)t’s no fun to appreciate to the full the materialist proposition that I don’t have a body, I am a body,” yet still he managed to do so frequently, never failing to relate the results to his audience. If we are to learn anything from Beamon’s experience, then it must be qualified in the knowledge that she has done, and will continue to do, the same.
No manner of epigrammatic exhortation will ever be able to adequately convey the immensely profound and personal experience of those whom which the Footman awaits. Those who have the courage and the tenacity to make the attempt are to be commended, not only for their valor but for whatever perspective they manage to offer along the way, no matter how fractious or disjointed. Misdiagnosed offers us a glimpse into the stark and literal world of lifelong illness, a place where, to quote Hitchens one last time (albeit loosely), Beamon still resides, “shackled to her own corpse.” Perhaps in time, after her and Death have grown old together (and he’s stopped that damned snickering), Beamon will find an opportunity to relate to us in full more than just the particulars and the participants in her story. I know I’d love to hear all about it.