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The Beauty in Breaking

The Beauty in Breaking
Michelle Harper
Penguin, $44.99

It would be hard to find a more apt example of a wounded healer than Michelle Harper, whose recent memoir The Beauty in Breaking has met with wide critical acclaim.

Harper is a Black American doctor with a specialty in emergency medicine. She grew up as the child of professional parents in a wealthy neighbourhood of Washington DC.

Her neighbourhood was safe; her home was not. Harper’s father was abusive, and life at home was fraught with violence and its constant threat. At age seven, however, she has a vision of a visit from a guardian angel, who assures her that she will survive, thrive, and come to heal others.

Driving her older brother to the local hospital emergency room after one of his many confrontations with their father, the teenage Harper is enthralled by what she sees. Highly intelligent and determined, she gets into Harvard and then medical school, and realises her dream of working with the stream of broken people who present to urban America’s emergency departments.

The Beauty in Breaking is a beautifully written and thoughtful memoir. The author moves between her childhood and the daily dramas of her hospital work, interspersed with deep insights into pain, trauma, healing, forgiveness and love. The nature of emergency medicine means that many patient encounters are fleeting, but Harper describes some profound connections as well as disturbing encounters with racism, sexism, hopelessness and, of course, death.

A frantic but unsuccessful attempt to resuscitate a week-old baby finally leaves Harper, who has borne her personal and professional trauma with stoicism, in tears. It also leads her to a realisation: “We had all been broken in that moment – broken open by shock and grief and anger and fear. I didn’t know how or when, but this opening could lead to healing.”

The Beauty in Breaking is, at times, harrowing and heartbreaking, but it is ultimately a book about hope and healingAs the author says in her Epilogue: “By healing ourselves, we heal each other. By healing each other, we heal ourselves.”


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