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Into the depths of Ross Douthat

Benjamin Boivin

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Among the fine books I've read in 2021 is Ross Douthat's latest, The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery, in which the author diverges from his usual, well-worn path.
Douthat is best known as an opinion columnist at the New York Times, where he is one of a few conservative voices. Focusing on issues like politics, religion, and moral problems, he is an agile writer and public speaker who is well-recognized for his idiosyncratic ability to enter into a relationship with an adversarial audience without diluting his own perspective. Douthat's previous book, The Decadent Society, was a well-researched analysis of what he sees as decadent tendencies in the Western world.
A well-known figure in the world of the political right, Douthat is a Catholic and a fantasy aficionado, as well as a noted articulator of arguments against abortion and other issues dear to the hearts of social conservatives. He also holds fairly populist economic views, an increasingly common cocktail of ideas in American public discourse.
Interestingly enough, though, Douthat's latest book has very little to do with any of that. Instead, The Deep Places is a profound and touching story about the ways in which a particular form of illness fundamentally changed his life. Written with a beautiful sense of honesty, it takes the reader through a journey towards the truths of suffering without recognition.
As a writer, Douthat enjoys success at a high level, holding on to one of the most sought-after jobs in the industry. Living with his wife and kids in D.C., he started to dream of a great escape, taking advantage of the resources at the disposal of his family to invest in a large, beautiful New England house, away from the disturbance of the capital and back into a smoother, healthier environment he could call home.
Things turned out quite differently. Very soon, Douthat became infected with Lyme disease, which in his case developed into a chronic form, bringing a diverse array of symptoms, including unbearable pains in different parts of his body.
Common in the American Northeast, Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria which spreads through ticks. The chronic form of the disease, however, does not enjoy recognition in medical circles and is often overlooked, leaving those who claim to be affected with little solution but to look around for alternative forms of medicine and care to address the debilitating effects of the disease. This, in a sense, is the backbone of the story Ross Douthat tells in the book, through multiple angles.
At times Douthat’s account becomes intensely personal. When addressing the ways in which the disease affected his family life, he doesn't shy away from acknowledging the emotional strains and financial hurdles and writes about what he perceives as hubris in the past contemplation of his dream house with a humbling openness.
When explaining, at some length, the realities of Lyme disease, he often notes how the disease caught his natural skepticism off guard. The reader gets a profound sense of how amazed the author is in the face of his own situation, his own limitations, and his own shortcomings at wrapping his head around what is happening to him, but also his unexpected willingness to accept what he had to put his faith in.
Indeed, as Douthat unfolds the world of the ill, the experiences of those whose lives have been changed by Lyme disease, the reader is exposed to utter weirdness. Between a “healthcare provider” showcasing her belief in chemtrails and the electromagnetic field machine hidden from his wife in the top floor of his house, Douthat leaves no stone unturned.
Coming from a Catholic writer who, by his own admission, isn't characterized by an especially pious disposition, The Deep Places also brings in stories of deep spiritual significance, illustrating with vivid clarity how the experience of suffering has impacted Douthat's religious life in a profound and lasting way, skillfully bringing to life how such pain twists and dances with hope.
Throw in a good dose of medical knowledge, a bit of faith, a dash of journalistic inquiry, and a zest of pure strangeness, and voilà, The Deep Places has just hit you. As unlikely as it seems that a book about Lyme disease could be so fascinating, it truly is the case, and not only because it has breadth, depth, and scope as a personal story. Douthat actually manages to make the story of and around the disease interesting in itself.
After two years of non-stop headlines and, quite frankly, lazy journalism about “the current situation”, Douthat reveals how “illness and discovery” can still be, in fact, worth thinking, writing, and reading about.


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