Heather King’s new book Stripped: At the Intersection of Cancer, Culture and Christ is one such book.
I have always been an admirer of Heather King’s writings. She has a voice that reminds me of the confessional poets I have loved since high school. Her writing has the brutal honesty of Anne Sexton and the raw vulnerability of Sylvia Plath.
But Heather’s faith also elevates her writing beyond self-centered introspection (not that the confessional poets were just this) and gives it the surprising and tender quality of the writings of mystics like Caryll Houselander.
This book, while it centers on Heather’s battle with cancer, is about so much more. It is a treatise on Catholicism, holiness and the biggest questions in life, without being overly sentimental or abstract.
I love memoirs but I particularly love them when the authors are able to lift themselves out of their experiences enough to communicate something intensely universal.
Heather King does just this in her new book Stripped. This book chronicles her struggles with a diagnosis of cancer. She honestly writes about her anxiety and her proactive, almost obsessive reaction to the diagnosis. But she also shares her prayer experiences and the people along her path who were Christ to her in the midst of her suffering.
Stripped is full of delightful tangents reminiscent of Thomas Merton and St. Augustine’s digressions from the main plot in their autobiographies that almost become more important than the developing story.
I had a pad of sticky notes with me as I read and kept placing them on the pages as I came upon a passage I wanted to commit to memory. The book was covered in sticky notes by the time I was done.
Here is one of my favorites:
The world says, Play it safe; the follower of Christ thinks, Go for broke. The world says, Let’s have an even exchange; the follower of Christ says. Take it all. The world says, Send a hundred bucks to the Red Cross; the follower of Christ says You question how you spend your time or money; you examine your relationships to food, people, work, your body; you make whole as best you can, the people you’ve hurt.
Heather is a loner in the Catholic world. She refuses to be caught up in the us versus them combative politics of the internal Church. She writes very insightful and searing criticisms of both the “liberal” and the “ultra-conservative” wings of the Church.
Perhaps it is her past which involved many rock bottoms, but Heather King seems to successfully leave all distractions behind and simply focus on her relationship with Christ in the Church and revel in the joy she feels at being one of the sinners the Church has welcomed in Her arms.
As a revert, I can relate to her surprise at the reality that there are so many Catholics who seem to be focused on everything but Jesus.
Christ to me was the most sublime, inexhaustibly exciting subject imaginable, but in the years since I’d joined the Church, I’d discovered that the excitement was not shared by my culture, my demographic, my gender, or even, in some cases, by my fellow Catholics.
Notice I have said virtually nothing about Heather’s bout with cancer. While this book may be of interest to those who struggle or have struggled with cancer, this memoir touches on something more fundamental than an individual’s experience with illness. This book addresses the deepest questions of life through the process of discernment, pain and prayer that Heather experienced while facing cancer.
At the end of the book, Heather makes a surprising decision. But really, it is not all that surprising because Heather is not just a mystic, she is also very pragmatic. Heather is able to make a daring choice, not because she is illogical and unrealistic, but precisely because her prayer life has allowed her to reach beyond the anxiety of dying and see the truth.
An excellent, excellent book.
I highly recommend that you read it.