A Letter from Maggie O’Farrell

August 8, 2017

Dear Reader,

This was a book I never intended to write. When I finished my previous novel, This Must Be The Place, I believed that I would soon start another work of fiction.

Instead, I found myself engaged with what I thought was a private project, a series of snapshots about all the times I came close to death.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is a memoir with a difference. Told in fragments, moving back and forward through time, it describes the months I spent in hospital after contracting encephalitis at the age of eight. It relates a teenage moment of madness by the sea, an encounter with a disturbed man on a mountainside, a severe illness in rural China.

It purports to be about death but is actually about life: how we carry on, how we live in the face of challenges and obstacles, how we must make the most of the time we are given. It’s also about the human need for narrative, that atavistic urge to distil experience into story as a means to explain the unexplainable to ourselves.

I Am, I Am, I Am is a response to living with my daughter’s life-threatening medical condition. Soon after she was born, she was diagnosed with a severe immunology disorder. Death, then, is constant risk in our house. I must continually think about how best to defend her from it, from the moment she wakes to the moment she goes to sleep.

How does a parent absorb and explain the near-death experiences suffered by young child? How best to reassure them, make them feel safe? The only way I have found to do this is to tell my daughter stories, to transpose what has happened to her into narrative. Only then can she comprehend the illnesses, the threat, the pain.

I wrote I Am, I Am, I Am to confront the brushes with death that we all have – and to help my daughter feel less alone.

With best wishes,

Maggie O’Farrell

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One comment on “A Letter from Maggie O’Farrell”

  • Jane Hill says:

    O’Farrell’s description of her brush with the bird man (in the Guardian Weekend) brought an old memory, that I have rarely spoken about, to the fore and made me horribly conscious of how my 59 year old self would have behaved so very differently to the near awful experiences (more than one) of my teenage self. There are many parallels with O’Farrell’s story. I had just graduated and was working, for the Summer, on a Field Studies Centre. How is it that we young women were willed to silence by the predatory behaviour of some men?

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