The New York Times columnist tells the story of his five-year struggle with a disease that officially doesn't exist, exploring the limits of modern medicine, the stories that we unexpectedly fall into, and the secrets that only suffering reveals.
With wife and children in tow, Douthat prices real estate in Connecticut. He plays the house-hunting scenes to good comic effect, consistently the butt of his own jokes and always just slightly funnier than he is insufferable ... For the rest of the book, Douthat artfully weaves two stories together. The first is the story of his own illness, the increasingly outlandish treatments he is willing to try, and the havoc the affliction wreaks in his life. As he looks for a cure, he uncovers a second story: the strange tale of Lyme disease itself ... The story of the medical establishment’s skepticism is interesting, but due to the high profile of long COVID, all but the dullest physicians will have realized by now that conditions like chronic fatigue and Lyme are real. The true heart of the book is Douthat’s narrative of his personal illness. No two chronic illnesses are exactly alike, but even so this book will likely resonate with anyone who has suffered from a chronic condition or has cared for someone who has.
Douthat sees symbols everywhere; he is telling a story not only of his own illness, but also about the stories we tell ourselves, secular and religious, to make sense of illness. This makes him a self-aware narrator. He knows he has resources many suffering patients don’t — including the benefit of the doubt not afforded the older women who tend to report chronic Lyme symptoms ... Writhing in pain on the bathroom floor, breaking down halfway through a speech or stumbling into empty churches to pray for relief, Douthat lays himself bare in ways that can be affecting. He is no braver for sharing his story than the women who have written Lyme memoirs before him...Still, in today’s hypermasculine conservative culture — where illness is a sign of weakness — this book is a near-radical act of humility. He makes his case that tick-borne disease needs more research and its sufferers deserve more respect ... The trouble is that Douthat also wants to present his reckless journey as a road map ... That this 'I’ll do my own research; sentiment is of the moment does not make it less damaging. On the contrary, a pandemic is the least helpful time to argue for the primacy of patient-designed protocols and internet anecdotes over actual science — imperfect, slow and unfeeling as it may be. Even in 2021, not everyone is an epidemiologist.
Like his cohorts, Douthat believes that his experience of misfortune makes him just like any one of us—who may contract Lyme and then be dismissed by doctors. In other words, we must forget that even Douthat’s suffering, sad as it is, has been monetized by a book deal ... If Douthat knows that every single person inhabiting a large city has a country house fantasy, he doesn’t let it show. The Douthats jump into the adventure with the entitlement—a Times review called it 'maybe a little self-satisfied' feeling—of those who are used to having things work out for them. The need for narrative tension dictates that it doesn’t ... In ensuing chapters, the disease takes over his entire life (although fortunately for him, he is still able to write his column) ... One cannot but feel terrible for him; and that his wife Abby is able to handle the sudden subtraction of a husband’s help dealing with a newborn also deserves sympathy. Interspersed with these moving accounts of how Lyme disease affects Douthat are generally informative chapters about the Lyme debate ... The Deep Places says it is a memoir about Lyme disease, but perhaps it is really the story of attempting to realize a dream using one’s wealth and then failing miserably owing to life’s unexpected interventions. That is a story we all know, a journey we have all taken. Perhaps in undertaking it, Ross Douthat, New York Times columnist, can have empathy for the rest of us.