Like all mothers, Emily Rapp had ambitious plans for her first and only child, Ronan. He would be smart, loyal, physically fearless, and level-headed, but fun. He would be good at crossword puzzles like his father. He would be an avid skier like his mother. Rapp would speak to him in foreign languages and give him the best education.
But all of these plans changed when Ronan was diagnosed at nine months old with Tay-Sachs disease, a rare and always-fatal degenerative disorder. Ronan was not expected to live beyond the age of three; he would be permanently stalled at a developmental level of six months. Rapp and her husband were forced to re-evaluate everything they thought they knew about parenting. They would have to learn to live with their child in the moment; to find happiness in the midst of sorrow; to parent without a future.
The Still Point of the Turning World is the story of a mother’s journey through grief and beyond it. Rapp’s response to her son’s diagnosis was a belief that she needed to “make my world big”—to make sense of her family’s situation through art, literature, philosophy, theology and myth. Drawing on a broad range of thinkers and writers, from C.S. Lewis to Sylvia Plath, Hegel to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Rapp learns what wisdom there is to be gained from parenting a terminally ill child. In luminous, exquisitely moving prose she re-examines our most fundamental assumptions about what it means to be a good parent, to be a success, and to live a meaningful life.
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Author One-on-One: Cheryl Strayed Interviews Emily Rapp
Cheryl Strayed's most recent books include the best-selling memoir Wild, which was Oprah Winfrey’s first selection for Oprah's Book Club 2.0; the advice essay collection Tiny Beautiful Things; and her debut novel Torch. Raised in Minnesota, Strayed now lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, the filmmaker Brian Lindstrom, and their two children.
Cheryl Strayed: Why did you want to write this book?
Emily Rapp: I wrote this book out of necessity; I would say I didn't want to write it, but that I had to write it. I was compelled, in a way I've never been before, to try and make sense of the chaos of my life in the wake of my son's terminal diagnosis. I wanted to write it as a way of kicking back against grief, that great leveler, and I felt an urgency to wrangle with the deepest issues of human life--What is luck? Where do we go when we die?--because I was being faced with them in a real-time, intensely dramatic way.
Cheryl Strayed: What was it like to write this book, at the same time Ronan was slipping away from you?
Emily Rapp: It was terrible, and it was beautiful. On the one hand, I was tracking his decline; on the other hand, I felt swollen and bright with love. It might sound silly, but a broken heart is an open one, and I was definitely broken. But I was working, and this gave me purpose, and the more I learned from Ronan’s presence--his innocence and beauty--the more I wanted to write about what this parenting journey had taught me not just about being a mother, but about being a human being.
Cheryl Strayed: Who were the writers who served as touchstones during this process?
Emily Rapp: Mary Shelley, Louise Gluck, Sylvia Plath, Simone Weil, Carson McCullers, old Akkadian myths like the Epic of Gilgamesh, and especially the work of C. S. Lewis.
Cheryl Strayed: What did you learn that surprised you, about the process of grieving for Ronan?
Emily Rapp: That grief can be electrifying, shot through with moments of deep presence and a feeling of being in the moment, which alternatively creates a feeling of elation, of true happiness. I was surprised that I could laugh, and love, and be, and also grieve through all of that. It taught me the fundamental truth of death-in-life that we all try to avoid but eventually cannot.
Cheryl Strayed: What do you most want readers to take away from the experience of reading this book?
Emily Rapp: I want readers to rethink their notions of tragedy and normalcy. I want them to find beauty in our human fragility, in the precariousness of all our lives, and I want this to act as a catalyst for them to live and love more boldly in their own lives. To make their lives big and rich and full and meaningful, however that might look for them.
Photo Emily Rapp ©Anne Staveley
Photo Cheryl Strayed ©Joni KabanaReview:
An Amazon Best Book of the Month, March 2013: When her first child Ronan is diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, a rare terminal and degenerative illness, Emily Rapp is forced to meditate on one of life's cruelest questions: what does it mean for a parent to outlive her child? Rapp can't help but dwell on all the things that her son will never do--the full life that wasn't robbed from Ronan so much as it was never given. Still Point of the Turning World is brave and magnificently written. Though there are moments of levity, in some ways, it can be hard to recommend Still Point because Rapp's story is so overwhelmingly sad. ("Here," you might say, "why don't you read this and bawl your eyes out?") But this is a book that's honest and thoughtful, and we find that, like Rapp herself, enduring such heartbreak imbues us with a new sense of wisdom and courage. --Kevin Nguyen
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