Disclosure: Duncan Cross provided me with a complementary copy of his book. I was not under any obligation to write a review. Product links in this post are for my Amazon Affiliate account.
My summer reading has a definite (unintentional) theme: books written by, or heavily featuring people I know. I joke that because of my odd hobby of patient advocacy, most of my friends are now other patients or regular health conference attendees. Even a few formerly “healthy” friends have been getting autoimmune diagnoses lately. So now my bookshelf is following the trend, it seems.
I recently read Regina Holliday’s compelling memoir The Writing on the Wall. Then on the way home from her conference, Cinderblocks2, I listened to the audiobook version of In the Kingdom of the Sick, by Laurie Edwards. Duncan Cross features heavily in this book – subtitled “A Social History of Chronic Illness in America.”
Cross (a nom de plume) was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease as a teenager and has been blogging at DuncanCross.net since 2008. He’s published a novelization of his early experiences with the diagnosis and illness titled League of Mortals. Cross explains that turning the story into a novel made for a more interesting and cohesive experience for readers, and allowed him liberty to fill in gaps in memory (I certainly would not have remembered all the dialogue from my diagnosis 21 years ago). He also claims that the field of illness novels is relatively barren, compared to the piles of memoirs chronicling personal health journeys. And that’s the thing; personal health rarely unfolds in a linear fashion most adaptable to narrative structure.
League of Mortals follows main character Wesley during his final year of high school. Wesley is a fairly typical American teenager: living in Florida he swims and surfs but is not a jock, he gets good grades in advanced classes, but is not an overly dedicated student, he attends church with his parents, but is mainly interested in meeting girls at his youth group. Wesley has a good number of friends, but becomes increasingly isolated as his illness progresses. The story plots the course of Wesley’s disease from first onset of symptoms to original diagnosis, to refining of that diagnosis, and finally working out the treatments that will help him best. Wesley spends much of the book overcome by malaise and acting out, the cause of which is eventually explained for the benefit of those who have not been through the same experience.
I’ve been reading Cross’s blog semi-regularly for a while now, but only just met him in person a few months ago. When I agreed to read the book, I asked Cross if he would stop being my friend if I didn’t like his book. (I’ve declined to read another friend’s self-published book about his experience with drug and alcohol addition.) Reading this novel was difficult for me. Cross is clear that he has a sort of twisted sense of humor – the novel uses some mature language and has several scenes involving masturbation or other sexual acts you might expect from a story about a high school boy.
Here’s a disclaimer about the book from the author’s website:
Note: because League of Mortals is above all honest, it contains scenes that may upset or offend some readers – including bathroom scenes, adult content, medical procedures, mild violence, and extremely dark comedy. While the content may be appropriate for late teen readers, League of Mortals not intended for young adults, and young readers will benefit from parental guidance.
That’s not why I had trouble stomaching the book. No, I found the book triggering. That is to say, reading during my daily Metro commute was difficult because of the many graphically realistic scenes of main character Wesley having stomach cramps and diarrhea.
If you don’t know much about Crohn’s disease or IBD you may assume it’s all about diarrhea, but in fact there are many other symptoms. In my case, I never had a problem with pooping until after my fourth (and final, so far) surgery in 2005. As a teen I was first hit with crushing, tear-enduing fatigue, then severe stomach cramps that left my curled up on the floor, and eventually extreme vomiting. You may be surprised to learn how much more socially acceptable and easily managed vomiting is compared to diarrhea. It wasn’t until this last symptom started that I began to experience anxiety about my condition, or stress about being away from a bathroom.
In fact, the book features a scene where Wesley and his friend visit Washington DC and ride the Metro. Wesley panics when he can’t find the bathroom (although, spoiler alert, he does okay on that trip), but is eventually told by a doctor that they do, in fact, have hidden facilities that the station master can let customers use, if they feel so inclined. Most tourists don’t know about this, and many people in a hurry can’t wait for a Metro employee to escort them.
I am very interested to hear how healthy people review this book. From my perspective as a fellow “sick kid,” it is a very accurate portrayal of illness. I wonder how the scenes of illness strike readers who have not lived through these things. Is there a market for stories like this? Do people want to understand on such an intimate level what Crohn’s disease is like?
Cross makes it clear that he disdains the limited literary tropes for illness. His character Wesley is not a saint, he is not redeemed through his illness, he does not die in the end so his organs can save his girlfriend, nor does his life serve as the inspiration for national health care policy reform. He’s an average guy who has a pretty crappy year and then learns to get on with his life as best as he can. He uses dark humor to cope and does not have much sympathy for people who try to mold him into inspiration porn. In this way, the book offers the most realistic depiction of the first year of chronic illness that I can remember reading.
Cross has a handy page of his blog explaining the many different ways to purchase League of Mortals.
Coupon code! The book is already a reasonable $4.99, but Cross agreed to offer readers a further discount. Use code JD87E good through July 20, 2015 for $2 off a download from Smashwords.