'I Am, I Am, I Am' Is a Celebration of Life in the Midst of (Near) Death

Maggie O'Farrell's I Am, I Am, I Am is a unique twist on the memoir, framed by 17 stories of harrowing near-misses.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death
Maggie O'Farrell

Vintage Books

Mar 2019


In December 1995, I almost died.

I was working for my former brother-in-law's computer parts business, and one afternoon I was riding with a co-worker, an eccentric older gentleman named Phil, in Phil's Chevy Monte Carlo. We were merging onto a very busy and very icy interstate highway in Massachusetts when he lost control of the car and it began spinning on the ice as we approached a slew of fellow rush hour commuters. When the car stopped, we were facing traffic. Phil managed to restart the car, did a 180 turn and rejoined the traffic in the proper direction. As we were spinning out of control, I honestly thought I was going to die. (I often joke about this episode as the time I "stared into the abyss with Phil.")

I would venture to say that most people have had near-death experiences. Maggie O'Farrell has had 17 of them. Whether or not this is an average number is hard to say, but it's safe to assume that few people have chronicled each individual experience, let alone made it the basis of a memoir. With her new book I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, O'Farrell doesn't make the mistake of turning her experiences into slabs of spooky, sensationalized campfire stories. Rather, they're interwoven into the fabric of her 47 years on earth as reminders of the fragility of life, almost as parables of mortality or – at the very least – cautionary tales.

Broken into chapters, each story is titled with the body part affected by the situation - Neck, Abdomen, Lungs, Intestines, etc. - and the year in which it occurred (it should be noted that this is not a chronological memoir). The stories vary in situation, but all have the same basic outcome – O'Farrell escapes death, and in some case, learns a valuable lesson.

In the first chapter, "Neck – 1990", O'Farrell – who was born in Northern Ireland but grew up in Wales and Scotland - writes about a brief yet terrifying episode when she was attacked by a drifter during a morning hike while working at a holistic retreat. But many of the episodes are medically related – a horrifying, heartbreaking miscarriage ("Baby and Bloodstream – 2005"), a stomach-churning account of an amoebic parasite contracted on a Chinese mountaineering expedition ("Intestines – 1994"), and – perhaps most gripping of all, a lengthy chapter devoted to O'Farrell's grueling bout with encephalitis as an eight-year-old ("Cerebellum – 1980").

Meanwhile, other chapters tell of situations that are merely the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In "Whole Body – 1993", O'Farrell is traveling across the Pacific Ocean in an airplane, unsure of her personal and professional future, when the aircraft experiences extreme turbulence that results in the injury of several passengers. "Cause Unknown – 2003" begins as a possible medical-related story but soon diverts into a unique twist – while parked at the side of a deserted French country road, attempting to breastfeed her fussy child who suffers from a reflux condition, O'Farrell is suddenly approached by a pair of sketchy drifters who mean to do harm.

At its heart, I Am, I Am, I Am is a memoir, and for someone who has traveled the world as extensively as O'Farrell, it celebrates the joy of international wanderlust with unbridled eloquence. "Lungs – 2010" describes a near-drowning, but not before describing her very first visit to Rome: "On the bus from the airport, I was assailed, astonished, by the colours of the city – the pale ochre stones of the buildings, the relentless blue of the sky, the green scooters, the tarnished gold of the coins, the black hair of the men who gestured at us, as we stared out of the bus window, smacking their lips."

Despite pain and suffering that dot its pages, I Am, I Am, I Am is a celebration of life, an affirmation that the shock of near-death shouldn't discourage any human to make the most of their lives, if they can. "We are, all of us, wandering about in a state of oblivion," she writes, "borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall." O'Farrell doesn't let fear of death keep her from living, and neither should we.





The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Will COVID-19 Kill Movie Theaters?

Streaming services and large TV screens have really hurt movie theaters and now the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered multiplexes and arthouses. The author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America, however, is optimistic.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D

Fleabag's Hot Priest and Love as Longing

In season two of Fleabag, The Priest's inaccessibility turns him into a sort of god, powerful enough for Fleabag to suddenly find herself spending hours in church with no religious motivation.


Annabelle's Curse's 'Vast Oceans' Meditates on a Groundswell of Human Emotions (premiere)

Inspired by love and life, and of persistent present-day issues, indie folk band Annabelle's Curse expand their sound while keeping the emotive core of their work with Vast Oceans.


Americana's Sarah Peacock Finds Beauty Beneath Surface With "Mojave" (premiere + interview)

Born from personal pain, "Mojave" is evidence of Sarah Peacock's perseverance and resilience. "When we go through some of the dry seasons in our life, when we do the most growing, is often when we're in pain. It's a reminder of how alive you really are", she says.


Power Struggle in Beauty Pageants: On 'Mrs. America' and 'Miss Americana'

Television min-series Mrs. America and Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana make vivid how beauty pageants are more multi-dimensional than many assume, offering a platform to some (attractive) women to pursue higher education, politics, and more.

Hilary Levey Friedman

Pere Ubu 'Comes Alive' on Their New, Live Album

David Thomas guides another version of Pere Ubu through a selection of material from their early years, dusting off the "hits" and throwing new light on some forgotten gems.


Woods Explore Darkness on 'Strange to Explain'

Folk rock's Woods create a superb new album, Strange to Explain, that mines the subconscious in search of answers to life's unsettling realities.


The 1975's 'Notes on a Conditional Form' Is Laudably Thought-Provoking and Thrilling

The 1975 follow A Brief Inquiry... with an even more intriguing, sprawling, and chameleonic song suite. Notes on a Conditional Form shows a level of unquenchable ambition, creativity, and outspoken curiosity that's rarely felt in popular music today.


Dustbowl Revival's "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)" Is a Cheeky Reproach of COVID-19 (premiere)

Inspired by John Prine, Dustbowl Revival's latest single, "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)", approaches the COVID-19 pandemic with wit and good humor.


The 2020 US Presidential Election Is Going to Be Wild but We've Seen Wild Before

Americans are approaching a historical US presidential election in unprecedented times. Or are they? Chris Barsanti's The Ballot Box: 10 Presidential Elections That Changed American History gives us a brief historical perspective.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.