Charis welcomes Jennifer Lunden in conversation with Sandra Gail Lambert for a discussion of American Breakdown: Our Ailing Nation, My Body’s Revolt, and the Nineteenth-Century Woman Who Brought Me Back to Life. A Silent Spring for the human body, this wide-ranging, genre-crossing literary mystery interweaves the author’s quest to understand the source of her own condition with her telling of the story of the chronically ill 19th-century diarist Alice James—ultimately uncovering the many hidden health hazards of life in America.
When Jennifer Lunden became chronically ill after moving from Canada to Maine, her case was a medical mystery. Just 21, unable to hold a book or stand for a shower, she lost her job and consigned herself to her bed. The doctor she went to for help told her she was “just depressed.”
After suffering from this enigmatic illness for five years, she discovered an unlikely source of hope and healing: a biography of Alice James, the bright, witty, and often bedridden sibling of brothers Henry James, the novelist, and William James, the father of psychology. Alice suffered from a life-shattering illness known as neurasthenia, now often dismissed as a “fashionable illness.”
In this meticulously researched and illuminating debut, Lunden interweaves her own experience with Alice’s, exploring the history of medicine and the effects of the industrial revolution and late-stage capitalism to tell a riveting story of how we are a nation struggling—and failing—to be healthy.
Although science—and the politics behind its funding—has in many ways let Lunden and millions like her down, in the end science offers a revelation that will change how readers think about the ecosystems of their bodies, their communities, the country, and the planet.
The recipient of the 2019 Maine Arts Fellowship for Literary Arts and the 2016 Bread Loaf-Rona Jaffe Foundation Scholarship in Nonfiction, Jennifer Lunden writes at the intersection of health and the environment. Her essays have been published in Creative Nonfiction, Orion, River Teeth, DIAGRAM, Longreads, and other journals, selected for several anthologies, and praised as notable in Best American Essays. A former therapist, in 2012 she was named Maine’s Social Worker of the Year. She and her husband, the artist Frank Turek, live in a little house in Portland, Maine, where they keep several chickens and two cats. American Breakdown is her first book.
Sandra Gail Lambert is the author of the Lambda Literary Award-nominated memoir A Certain Loneliness which explores the intersections of disability, queerness, and desire. Her work has been published by The Sun, The New York Times, The Paris Review, and Orion. She is an NEA creative writing fellow. Next year her collection, My Withered Legs and Other Essays, will be published by the University of Georgia Press.
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A Silent Spring for the human body, this wide-ranging, genre-crossing literary mystery interweaves the author’s quest to understand the source of her own condition with her telling of the story of the chronically ill 19th-century diarist Alice James—ultimately uncovering the many hidden health hazards of life in America.
After contracting polio as a child, Sandra Gail Lambert progressed from braces and crutches to a manual wheelchair to a power wheelchair—but loneliness has remained a constant, from the wild claustrophobia of a child in body casts to just yesterday, trapped at home, gasping from pain.