The many lurid and confessional hospital dramas now on television can make it seem like nothing new or particularly revelatory can be said about the inner lives of healthcare professionals. Challenging this assumption is an unusual new memoir—by turns both brutal and lyrical—by a longtime itinerant nurse who first discovered her talent for lucid introspection as a published poet.

Mary Jane Nealon’s Beautiful Unbroken is a parable about the elastic limits of our ability to help others. It pivots around one specific tragedy: the death of Nealon’s younger brother Johnny from cancer in the 1970s. Freshly graduated from nursing school but emotionally unable to stay beside her family during Johnny’s swift decline, she subsequently spent her 20s and 30s practicing compassion at strangers’ bedsides to exorcise feelings of guilt.

Despite this psychic burden, Nealon comes across as an earthy, engaging character. This 20-something fledgling nurse loved reggae and Latin dancing and was not averse to a little recreational cannabis or regular bouts of unmarried sex. Comforted by the fact that a saint-like desire to save lives and ease suffering could be fulfilled by someone far from saint-like, she identified more with her dashing cop father than her demure mother.

She wrote and performed poetry while serving in Manhattan cancer wings and kept writing whenever she was posted to cities where poetry workshops were available. The best sections of this autobiography show the results of these apprenticeships: unflinching revelations couched in beautiful allusions and startling metaphors. She tells us her brother’s laugh was “like smooth hay blowing this way and that way around the house.” She describes her acceptance to a year-long writing fellowship as a needed break from fighting the AIDS epidemic: “I felt as if I had finally come out of the dressing room wearing my own skin, and in the mirror I saw the possibilities of my own shape.”

Nevertheless, this is not an easy book to read. If you are squeamish, be warned that Nealon makes us watch while she attends the severely injured or dying. She skillfully evokes the messy fluids and despair of home hospice work and AIDS units. Yet her vivid recollections, so cool and succinct, evoke empathy rather than horror. How many times have we passed a nurse or doctor in hospitals and wondered how they survive daily exposure to so much pain? Beautiful Unbroken doesn’t completely answer that question, but it makes us understand through Nealon’s own triumphs and failures exactly why the question must be asked.

 

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