The Gifts of the Body by Rebecca Brown

I want to start by showing the cover image of The Gifts of the Body because it represents the feeling of the stories well, and the nudity is important. This is a slim collection of 163 pages, and within are 11 interconnected stories. In each is an unnamed narrator. I pictured him/her as the author Rebecca Brown, who was a home-care worker. Typically, when an author writes about such an intimate topic and he/she has done the work before, I immediately assume that the fiction is a good deal autobiographical. Should I assume that? Some literary theorists say yes, that the author’s life informs the work, and others say no, not at all. Regardless, a home-care worker sees people naked at their most vulnerable. The character in the stories will hold a person as he/she is dying.

The titles are all some type of gift: sweat, tears, mobility, death, etc. The narrator goes into the homes of people who are in their last stages of dying from AIDS, which sets the collection during the AIDS epidemic (it was published in 1994). Today, people can control the virus and live long lives. But remember that during the height of the epidemic, AIDS victims were the walking dead, shunned by a society that wasn’t sure how AIDS was transmitted. I had an older student last year who told me that in the 80s he wouldn’t even shake people’s hands — that’s how scared his community was.

The last step for people in The Gifts of the Body is hospice care, but just before that the narrator comes to their home to help with chores, meals, and bathing. He/she (it’s not clear) typically has a regular client, but as people die quickly, new clients are added frequently, and sometimes he/she must sub for another home-care worker who can’t make an appointment. The challenge is to see each patient as human, but not get too attached because they’re all going to die soon.

Rebecca Brown writes in the most pared down simple sentences I’ve seen in fiction in a long time. With a topic likes the AIDS epidemic, there’s no need to add anything extra. The “extra” might distract readers from what’s important: the people. Here’s an example from a man who is so close to death that he can’t really speak anymore:

Rick loved cats. He’d wanted to adopt one that was hanging around his place, but everyone said he could get sicker from the cat, but he said he didn’t care. But then he decided not to keep the cat and called everyone he knew till he found someone who could take it. He’d decided he didn’t want to keep the cat, then have it miss him and not have a dad after he died.

The language is basic. The sentence structure is simple and compound sentences, no more. But the emotion is so strong that I’m having a hard time writing about it. This really is a sad book, but one that reminded me that humans deserve dignity regardless of what their body is doing, what runs in their veins, the condition of their skin.

Though The Gifts of the Body is made up of individual stories, there is an overall shape. The narrator introduces us to different people in the early stories, transitions them to hospice care near the middle, and describes their deaths in the end. Only one person’s death is detailed, but the rest are labeled dead. I think it’s important to end with that one story in which readers get the details of what a person’s face and breath and eyes do in those last moments. It’s not lovely and it’s not like the movies, and it’s important. I cried in those moments because it’s so real, but the death scene is not sensationalized.

An important book that puts a face on the AIDS epidemic, including the victims, their families, and the people who cared for them. I don’t typically include an image of the author because I don’t think it matters, but I’m adding a picture of Brown below as a sort of acknowledgement of the work she did when very few would.

Rebecca Brown

Image taken from her faculty bio page at the University of Washington-Bothell.

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25 comments

  1. This sounds incredible. I’ve read quite a few novels that include references to AIDS in the 80s but certainly not a whole book or one that is so intimate.

  2. This sounds like a powerful look at the real faces of AIDS, if I can put it that way. And you’re right; there’s something about the relationship between care worker and patient that is extremely intimate.

    • I remember reading an article years ago about a woman who would take in unwanted men (mostly) with AIDS when their families were ostracizing them. I thought it was Rebecca Brown, but I think I’m wrong. This woman took folks into HER home.

  3. Sounds really interesting. I taught the AIDS epidemic in Britain as part of a history module last year and my students were visibly shocked by some of the stories – I wasn’t sure how much they already knew about how bad things were in the 1980s.

    • Considering students were born circa 2000 these days, I doubt they know much about AIDS at all. I remember what Magic Johnson came out and said he was infected and thinking he was utterly a dead man walking. Now we know Charlie Sheen has had AIDS forever and living exactly how he wants to. People suspected but didn’t really know until he confirmed it.

  4. I always thought this kind of job being so hard mentally and emotionally. It’s like living it over and over again changes you as a person. This might be a good book for an aspiring nurse.

    • I think this book might also be a good measure of how well someone can emotionally cope with different types of diseases and how they affect the body. It would be rough to get deep into a medical program and realize that it’s too much for their emotions to handle.

    • Thanks, Shell! I tend to find books that pop out to me in used bookstores. As a result, I don’t tend to read what’s new or popular. The exception is any book that goes on my fat reading quest.

  5. I vividly remember the hysteria around AIDS back in the day. It fundamentally changed society, oddly in some ways for the better, once the vilification died down – made us a bit more caring, maybe, and a lot more open to talking about subjects that had previously been taboo.

    • In the spring, I taught a paper on rhetoric that caused quite a stir. It was based on a speech by a woman named Mary Fisher who was a a politicians daughter–and white. The students felt that she was the wrong person to deliver a message about AIDS because she was white, wealthy, and had a platform thanks to her family’s political standing. My students, on the other hand, were largely poor black men who claimed they were surrounded by people with AIDS. It was an interesting time in the class, but also very, very hard.

  6. I have a feeling this is one of those raw and extremely powerful books that stay with us long after we finished reading them.
    I appreciate books that are written to address a certain issue and to raise an awareness around it. It seems The Gifts of the Body does exactly that. I’m making a mental note to read it when I am in a good place mentally as books like this one could really push me towards my dark side.
    Thanks Melanie for your thoughtful review and for bring this book to my attention!

    • You’re so welcome, Vera! When I was reading this book, it didn’t come off like it was trying to “Say Something Important,” but it does nonetheless. I find such texts work better for me than the ones that read as preaching.

  7. What a powerful review, Melanie! You convinced me early on this is a worthwhile collection to read and I’ve already requested it from the library. I imagine Brown had a lot of challenging experiences in her role as a home-care nurse. I can understand how you would jump to a reflection on Brown’s experiences being portrayed in these stories, and I would have done the same. I am certainly of the camp that the experiences authors have are reflected in their texts in some way. Perhaps, this was even a way for Brown to honor those she interacted with during her career? What do you think?

    Also, do you think Brown intentionally avoids providing a gender to the narrator?

    • I don’t know Brown’s sexuality, but maybe uses gender-neutral pronouns? And thus assigned no gender to the narrator. I wish I would have thought to send the book to you. I think it’s a good thought that the author is honoring patients….maybe a way to keep them alive?

      • Personally, I have to make an effort to supply gender neutral pronouns, so unless Brown identifies neutrally or has someone close to them who uses gender-neutral pronouns, I’d imagine this was intentional. But it’s hard to say– it just seems like effort was placed here!

        The book arrived today from the library. I am looking forward to reading it. I probably need something to push me towards a good cathartic cry. 😉

        • The book has a lot of “I” and then the characters speak to the narrator using “you,” like “I’m glad you’re here,” so it never felt awkward. I’ve found that simply using a totally different word–folks, individual, person–I don’t have to struggle with gender pronouns.

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