Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro, Harper , 2009, ISBN 978-0-06-162834-4, 245 pages, $24.99.
By Donald H. Harrison
SAN DIEGO—Successful though she may be as an author, Dani Shapiro has had a difficult emotional life. The parent whom she admired was killed in a car crash following his seizure behind the wheel. The parent with whom she had always battled somehow survived the same horrible crash, but her near- death did not serve to bring them closer.
Shapiro is of a generation sandwiched between traumas. Her son, Jacob, suffered from infantile spasms, a stormy brain condition that almost always is fatal. Fighting for her son, confounding the terrible odds, Shapiro alternated seeking the wisdom and comfort of her father’s Orthodox Judaism with meditational experiments in Buddhism. In both practices of devotion, she was drawn to order and to ritual, even as she once found magnetism in the meetings and procedures of Alcoholics Anonymous , even though she herself was not an alcoholic. Shapiro’s search for peace of mind is ceaseless.
There may be times when readers feel like unpaid psychiatrists upon whose couches Shapiro plops herself and begins relating in episodic fashion her search for mental peace and for God. Her self-absorbed narrations might even be considered a burden– recounting in near streams of consciousness her doubts, her quests, her frequent starts and stops. However, although Shapiro doesn’t bring certainty to her subject matter, she certainly knows how to write. Her phrasing is artful, her self-analysis insightful, her book strangely compelling, even to strangers.
I dare say that I understand why Shapiro never could find peace—only meditative approximations of it. Writers tend to be observers—their minds are frequently analyzing their environments, their mental processes often absorbed with seeking and finding just the right words to describe what they see or feel. Peace of mind cannot come easily with such mental acuity—one cannot turn one’s faculties on and off at the same time. Imagine a Zen riddle master asking students to describe in detail the exact sensations of one’s own mind letting go. Does answering the question preclude the experience?
Nevertheless, Shapiro finds more peace at the end of the book than she had at the beginning. She has reengaged in a Judaism alloyed with the insight and practice of Buddhism. She has donned her father’s tefillin. She has visited her mother’s grave and recited kaddish.
As readers and as human beings we are thankful that for some unfathomable reason—coupled with experimental medicine—little Jacob beat the odds and went on to lead a life as normal as any other American child’s.
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World