In the late spring of 2010, I was going through a difficult time in my life. We all have the rough times, whether it be days or years but judging my own life thus far, this period was the second most difficult time I've experienced.
I went to a talk and book signing with Alexandra Fuller. I was struck by her physical beauty and, much more so, her voice and her words. I asked her to sign my copy of Don't Let's Go To the Dogs Tonight and I told her that while things had been difficult in my life, I pulled strength and warmth from her words. She was gracious, humble, unbelievably kind, and signed my book with a personal and beautiful epigraph.
Having just finished Fuller's new memoir, Leaving Before the Rains Come, I can now see that her life was also difficult at the time that I met her. About a year and a half later, the remnants of her marriage were obliterated when her husband suffered a horrific riding accident. They were living in Wyoming at the time and attempts to save his life ended with bringing him to the ICU at the University of Utah here in Salt Lake. I am nothing more than a complete stranger to Fuller, but when I read about her fear and grief as she waited through his surgeries, alone, I wish so deeply that I could have been there. Just to sit, to listen if needed, to be a presence.
This wasn't just a sympathetic yearning but an empathic urge from a woman who has been there. Some of the elements in her situation were startlingly similar to the earlier, highly traumatic event in my life. A stroke, multiple ambulances, a lifeflight in a tiny, tiny plane over an ocean, and days of uncertainty sparked with moments of hope. I was also alone, utterly alone in a foreign country, and reading Fuller's experience was rather traumatic for me.
I've seen criticisms out there regarding Fuller's memoirs, this one in particular due to the extremely unfortunate coincidence that her marriage was already nearing its end at the time of the accident (they, in fact, had ridden the horses out to discuss a truce over the emotional upheaval in their lives). It should also be noted that he wasn't crushed by his horse and she walked away. She advocated for his care in every way she thought he would want, and she nursed him for months afterwards despite that they'd already been talking about divorce. I'd like to go ahead and dredge up my tired admonition about those who criticize authors for making these narratives "all about" themselves with the reminder that it is a memoir. What else do you expect? The best memoirs, however, skillfully relate the author's experience to those of others, and their context in the larger community.
This isn't all to say that Fuller doesn't carry her own blame and share of responsibility for the decline of her marriage. To be honest, I'm not sure I could have stayed so long with a man about whom she described this way:
Early in the marriage, while they were still living in Zambia, in a complete hovel of a place with no running water and biting ants covering the floor, Fuller had their first baby. She begged her husband for some improvement to their conditions but to no avail. They were surrounded by constant deaths from malaria and yellow fever and Fuller was terrified of her newborn baby dying. Fuller caught malaria, not for the first time, but for the worst time in her life and, finally, was literally dying of the disease. As she cradled her baby and felt herself falling into unconsciousness, she said to her husband, "I'm not going to come out of this."
Fuller wrote that she realized very early on, even before they left Africa, that her husband was disappointed in her, and she was never going to live up to his standards. But she still chose to leave with him, have two more children with him, and willingly block him out whenever he tried to tell her how drastic their financial situation was. He took jobs that seemed to erode his soul and connection to the land he loved, in an attempt to buoy up their lives but because his actions conflicted with her ideals, Fuller repeatedly criticized his efforts.
But certainly (amongst other incidents shared in the book and I'm sure much more she didn't share - she did seem to attempt to be relatively balanced in her narrative), no one who can respond like that to his new bride's impending death can be a thoroughly joyful person to live with for more than twenty years. I mean sure, there's black humor, but there's also common decency and love for another person (let alone your wife and mother of your newborn daughter).
Fuller's writing is astonishing. Eloquent, horrifying, deeply honest. She does this thing where she builds up deceptively simply constructed sentences that then turn on a dime into a beautiful and illuminated way of thinking about something. Fuller's mother has a history of deeply disturbing bouts of depression (see Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness) and when Fuller's marriage and life in general was falling apart, she was certain that she was going to fall to pieces as wholly and destructively as her mother. Her downfall (fortunately) wasn't as spectacular as those her mother suffers. But shortly before she fell apart, she talked at a literacy-for-Africa event where she horrified the audience by saying that African women need to know how to read and write so that they can better report the rape and other atrocities that happen to them. Afterwards, an older African man came up and chastised her for talking about such things, saying that she was "not a good daughter of Africa." Fuller rebelled against him, confronted him loudly in front of everyone, but then ultimately fell apart and said to him, "You're right, I'm not a good daughter of Africa."
"The truth is, I wasn't only not a good daughter of Africa, I was not a good daughter of anywhere, nor was I a good wife or a good mother. I was a woman on the brink of free fall, and it was hard to be a good, acceptable woman in any language or in any place when simultaneously contemplating becoming undone. For the first time, I was beginning to see that for a woman to speak her mind in any clear, unassailable unapologetic way, she must first possess it."