I’ve just read Ross Douthat’s forthcoming memoir The Deep Places and it is truly exceptional: a vividly narrated account of his disorienting spiral into chronic illness, and of his eventual recovery. (Not quite a complete recovery, I take it, but nearly so.) Ross manages a really remarkable thing here: to weave together his story of a body’s pain, a mind’s vacillations, and a spirit’s struggles with an account of how the medical establishment deals with, or simply refuses to deal with, conditions it does not understand — and, as if all that isn’t enough, an account of how, in response to the establishment’s failures, sufferers form communities that sometimes carry them to healing and at other times take them down long paths of confusion and illusion. That Ross can weave all this into a unity and even make the book a kind of page-turner — that’s something special.

Let me close by pointing out one more layer of meaning: Ross’s illness happened to him in an era of self-presentation through social media — an almost universal phenomenon, yes, but one that’s intensified for public figures like Ross. I’ll end with this passage from the book, in which Ross discusses meeting, during his various professional travels, a kind of hidden nation of sufferers, most of whom were rather older than him:

There was comfort there, of a sort: I was just living under a storm front that had rolled in a little early. But there was also a feeling of betrayal, because so little in my education had prepared me for this part of life — the part that was just endurance, just suffering, with all the normal compensations of embodiment withdrawn, a heavy ashfall blanketing the experience of food and drink and natural beauty. And precious little in the world where I still spent much of my increasingly strange life, the conjoined world of journalism and social media, seemed to offer any acknowledgment that life was actually like this for lots of people — meaning not just for the extraordinarily unlucky, the snakebit and lightning-struck, but all the people whose online and social selves were just performances, masks over some secret pain.