“Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted” by Suleika Jaouad – A journey through the heart of trauma, resilience, and rediscovery

22 April 2024
Aiswarya Menon Written by Aiswarya Menon
Aiswarya Menon

Aiswarya Menon

Aiswarya is a writer and brand strategist. She is also a secret student of psychology and spends...

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* Warning: Heavy themes, such as cancer, death, and grief, are discussed in the book. This might be distressing to some readers. 

What is the similarity between a convict facing a death sentence and a 22-year-old woman diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia?

The uncertainty of death. A nemesis they both know will arrive, but not when. 

We all have plans, dreams, and aspirations. But what happens when life throws a wrench in the works, shattering everything we’ve built and hoped for? This is the heart-wrenching reality that Suleika Jaouad faces in her profoundly moving memoir, “Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted.”

At 22, Jaouad had the world at her feet. A budding war correspondent, she was ready to embark on an exciting new chapter in Paris.

“If Manhattan is where people move to jump-start careers, Paris is where they go to live out the fantasy of a different life, and that was exactly what I intended to do,” she writes, her words brimming with youthful optimism. 

A chance encounter with a vulnerable, easygoing, handsome man turned out to be the kind of love that she did not expect, a partner who eventually moved to Paris to live with her after three days of chatting and email correspondence after. 

But then, the unthinkable happened. What started as an uncontrollable itch ended as a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia. Jaouad found herself facing an uncertain future, her carefully constructed plans crumbling before her eyes – one itch at a time.

"Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted" by Suleika Jaouad - A journey through the heart of trauma, resilience, and rediscovery
Image courtesy: Suleika Jaouad

Cancer, as Jaouad soon discovered, is the ultimate trauma, a deeply distressing and disturbing experience that changes every aspect of one’s being. In “Between Two Kingdoms,” she invites us to walk alongside her as she navigates the treacherous terrain of illness, treatment, and survival. Her writing is raw, honest, and utterly captivating, drawing us into her world with an intimacy that feels both vulnerable and empowering.

Jaouad’s memoir is a tale of two halves, reflecting the dichotomy of her life before and after her diagnosis. She draws on Susan Sontag’s metaphor of dual citizenship in the “kingdom of the well” and the “kingdom of the sick” to articulate the liminal space that chronic illness occupies. She writes,

“Illness, for most people, is a brief sojourn into the kingdom of the sick. At some point, you get to go home. But for some of us, we stay, we become citizens of this other place.”

It’s a powerful metaphor, and Jaouad navigates this duality with a deft and poignant touch.

Where Jaouad truly shines is in her unflinching exploration of the emotional and psychological toll of cancer. She bares her soul, sharing the isolation, fear, and loss of identity that come with being a patient, her words a testament to the transformative power of illness.

​​Jaouad offers a candid portrayal of the relationships that are both tested and forged in the crucible of her illness. Her relationship with Will, her boyfriend at the time of her diagnosis, serves as a central narrative thread throughout the memoir. Jaouad does not shy away from the complexities of their bond, which is catapulted from a nascent romance into the deep end of caregiving and emotional support. She explores the strain that her illness places on Will, who had not signed up for the role of caregiver, and the complex mix of guilt and resentment that arose within her as a result of their unequal positions. Jaouad’s vulnerability in sharing these moments provides a nuanced look at the emotional toll cancer can take on relationships.

While her relationship with Will and the complexities were my absolute favorite, the relationship and dynamics between Jaouad and her parents were a close second. Thrust back into her childhood home by her illness, she navigates the tension between her desire for independence and the reality of her dependence on her parents for care. This push and pull is a common thread for many young adults with cancer, and Jaouad captures the bittersweet nature of this regression into a cared-for child with sensitivity and depth.

She discusses the isolation that comes when friends do not know how to react to her illness, and the profound connections she makes with other young adults who are also battling cancer. These relationships, formed in hospital hallways and waiting rooms, become a source of strength and camaraderie, offering a counterpoint to the friends who fall away. But the other part of that coin was dealing with the loss of friends, who knew without explaining what she was going through. 

The way Jaouad describes grief in light of a dear friend’s death is relatable, moving, and beautifully written. She writes, “Grief is a ghost that visits without warning. It comes in the night and rips you from your sleep. It fills your chest with shards of glass. It interrupts you mid-laugh when you’re at a party, chastising you that, just for a moment, you’ve forgotten. It haunts you until it becomes a part of you, shadowing you breath for breath.”

She acknowledges the skill and dedication of her doctors and nurses while also critiquing the moments when the healthcare system fails to address the needs of young adult patients, particularly around issues like fertility preservation. Imagine losing your biological ability to have children before you have even thought about if you want kids. 

Image credit: Suleika Jaouad

Throughout the memoir, Jaouad’s relationships serve as a mirror to the various facets of her experience with cancer. They reflect the love, support, and complexity of navigating life-threatening illness alongside others. These relationships are not idealized; they are real and raw, marked by failure and grace. Jaouad’s honest examination of these connections underscores the memoir’s themes of interdependence, growth, and the human capacity for resilience in the face of adversity. 

But “Between Two Kingdoms” is not just a story of sickness; it’s also a story of healing, rediscovery, and the unbreakable human spirit.

In the second half of the memoir, we follow Jaouad on a 100-day road trip across America, a journey that serves as a metaphor for her internal quest to find herself again. 

Along the way, she meets with strangers who had written to her during her illness, each offering a unique perspective on survival and resilience. These encounters are a reminder of the transformative power of human connection, of the way in which opening up to others can help us open up to ourselves.

Throughout her memoir, Jaouad emphasizes the importance of storytelling and personal reflection in facing the challenges of illness. Writing becomes her lifeline, a way to process her experiences and reclaim her narrative. “I wrote to make sense of the senseless, to try to understand the story of my life and my illness,” she explains, highlighting the therapeutic value of sharing our stories. This is exemplified in her New York Times series “Life, Interrupted,” where she chronicled her experiences as a young adult with cancer.

​​If you’re looking for a memoir that will move you, inspire you, and change how you see the world, “Between Two Kingdoms” is a must-read. Suleika Jaouad’s story is a testament to the power of the human heart, a shining example of how, even in the face of unimaginable adversity, we can find the strength to heal, grow, and rediscover ourselves. This book will leave you feeling empowered, uplifted, and deeply grateful for the resilience of the human spirit. More than that, it will inspire you to face your own challenges with courage, compassion, and an unwavering commitment to living life to the fullest.

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