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Nursing Her Grief: a review of Mary Jane Nealon's "Beautiful Unbroken"

February 9, 2012

A friend of mine tells the story of the evening he sat in the audience at last year’s Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and listened to Mary Jane Nealon read from her memoir Beautiful Unbroken: One Nurse's Life, which would be published later that year by Graywolf Press. Nealon’s story of grief, loss and forgiveness in both her family history and her career as a nurse is a battering ram on the emotions. As she read from her pages, the Bread Loaf audience was visibly shaken. She read in a tone of voice that was both matter-of-fact and vulnerable. She read of how her cancer-stricken brother died when he was in his early 20s, she read of her parents’ headlong plunge into sorrow, she read of the brave but doomed AIDS patients she cared for during the height of the 1980s epidemic. The audience was held in the grip of her words. No one breathed. No one blinked. It was so quiet, you could have heard a tear drop. Nealon read of difficult lives caught in the grip of profound losses, then she went deeper into these lives, and still deeper. And then she went even deeper yet. At this point, my friend let out a loud, involuntary “Oh goddamn!” It cut the tension and relieved laughter rippled through the theater.

Such is the powerful effect Nealon’s words have on her listeners and her readers.

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