'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.

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