Review by Julia Brown.
Megan Stielstra’s collection of essays The Wrong Way to Save Your Life (Harper Perennial, 2017) sets out to document personal stories of fear across the span of the author’s life. She writes about being a child, having a child, and postpartum depression. She writes about being a college student, teaching college students, and teaching college faculty. She writes about gun violence, fires, and the political climate. She writes about deer hearts and the human heart. Expertly weaving together a series of interconnected stories, Stielstra, a creative nonfiction professor at Northwestern University and author of Once I Was Cool, captures readers’ attention with vivid details, relatable narratives, and a raw honesty that permeates the entire collection.
Stielstra opens with a short essay that explains how this collection came to be, and introduces some of the stories to come. From the beginning, Stielstra remains hopeful, saying, “I want to believe we’re moving forward as a society and this surge of bigotry and violence is the final kick and scream, a last-ditch effort to hang onto the white patriarchal systems that favor the privileged. If we’re going to make it we have to look at the fear” (10). She examines this fear through her own experiences as a young woman who dealt with objectifying employers, her conversations about race with her best friend, her journey of learning that her writing is political, and the human heart.
In exploring the human condition, Stielstra asks her father, a retired school administrator and a hunter, to send her deer hearts to dissect-something she had only done in a high school science course. By learning about the heart physically, Stielstra posits that she might learn something about the heart metaphorically. She details text message and Facebook conversations about the hearts, conversations began over drinks with friends, and admits that she is unsure of the significance of the hearts and what questions the dissections will answer. Stielstra does gain insight from the self-admittedly odd endeavor, stating, “Ever since I started this thing with the deer hearts, everyone wants to talk about meat. About butchers. About dissection and hunting and organ donation and blocked arteries and invasive surgery—our battered aging bodies, so beautiful and mortal. I love these stories, how one opens the door for another” (46). The deer hearts open doors to Stielstra’s accounts of her father’s heart disease and her fears surrounding his health, as well as doors to difficult discussions of gun violence and gun laws. While Stielstra was in college, her high school science teacher brought a gun to school and murdered an administrator, whom she feared might be her father. Though Stielstra’s father was not on campus at the time of the shooting, her initial fear leaves her questioning her own general safety and the safety of her loved ones. Continue reading “Book Review: The Wrong Way to Save Your Life by Megan Stielstra”