Of Tick Bites, Myth, And Prophecy
A few years back, I arrived at a conference somewhere — Nashville, I think — and was sitting in the lobby of the conference hotel when I noticed my friend Ross Douthat stroll by. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years. He looked unwell. Really unwell. He told me he had Lyme disease. On second thought, I’m not sure if he had identified it as Lyme then. Anyway, he knew he was very sick, and he looked gaunt and haunted. Now, in his powerful, surprisingly poetic new memoir, The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery, Douthat tells his readers just how sick he was, and how the physical agonies of this mysterious disease were paralleled by the psychological and even spiritual torments it brought about.
You might think this sounds like a difficult and unpleasant read, but let me assure you that it is engrossing. I read it in one sitting. The only other book like it that I can recall is William Styron’s staggering and highly praised memoir of depression, Darkness Visible. It takes a true literary gift to make this kind of narrative appealing. Douthat has it. Does he ever have it.
To be honest, I am one of the key audiences for this book. I struggled for years with chronic Epstein-Barr, which is mononucleosis. It first came on me in 2010, a month or so after learning that my sister had terminal cancer. I thought it was allergies, and so did my doctor. Allergy treatments did no good. After my sister died in 2011 and we moved to my Louisiana hometown, deep family rifts emerged, things that I had not known existed. They went off like bunker-buster bombs within me that spring. The awful bouts of deep fatigue that I had lived with for a period in Philadelphia returned. One day I was mowing the grass, and nearly fainted. My pulse was racing. I entered into a series of medical tests that turned up nothing. One day, my physician decided to try something he had overlooked: a mono spot test. It came back positive.
Nobody had thought about mono because it’s so rare in people my age (I was 45 at the time). Mind you, this thing I deal with was nothing compared to what Douthat had with Lyme. Still, I was sleeping from four to six hours every day, in addition to what I slept at night, and was often too weak and fuzzy-headed to do much of anything but flop around. Somehow I kept doing this job, and wrote three books before I was fully healed. But this suffering was hard on my family too, especially because the doctors could not guarantee that I would ever be well again. (I did get over it once I was able to handle the intense stress caused by these family issues, but even today, if I experience a lot of stress at once, I tip back into mono, though so far, it has usually abated after a few weeks.) I remember from that time the loneliness of it. People were kind, but you could tell that some of them wondered if this was really a thing. I wondered all the time if this was going to be with me the rest of my life — and if so, how was I going to cope psychologically? Is it going to be like this for the rest of my life? I thought. The open-endedness of the condition was its own kind of torture.
These are things that everyone with chronic illness has to deal with. My illness was relatively mild. Douthat’s, though? My God, the agonies he endured! I knew this was going on when it was happening, because he would write from time to time to tell me when he was in a particularly low point, and to ask my prayers. But really, until I read The Deep Places, I had no serious grasp of how much my friend and his family were hurting. If nothing else, reading this book will make you a better friend to those in your life with chronic illness.
Here’s how the book starts:
For a long time I would always wake up early. Some mornings there would be a moment when I was conscious but not yet fully aware of my body, just a mind floating lightly in the dark. But then very quickly I would feel the weight of things, my legs and chest leaden on the mattress, my head heavy on the pillow. And then quickly too, the pain would be with me once again.
The first sensation was always something different—a heavy ache in the shoulder I’d been sleeping on, a pan-fry sizzle on my hips, a throbbing at the very front of my skull, an intolerable vibration inside my ankles. Then it spread and varied as I pushed back the blanket and fumbled for my phone, pushing my mind into the glowing screen while my body shuttled through its symptoms.
Sometimes I would lie in a cramped position scrolling Twitter, picking up fragments of news, chasing threads of arguments from overnight, letting the pain work through my limbs and joints, watching the clock slowly creep toward 5 a.m. That was on a good morning. On the bad ones, I would be forced up quickly, staggering to the bathroom, leaving Abby to sleep—I hoped—in a snow fort of blankets on the far side of the bed.
The house was old, so very old, but the bathroom was new—an expanse of tile, a shower like a grotto, a his-and-hers sink with drawers for both of us below a sweep of mirror. The floor was even supposed to be heated in the winter, but the system had been on the fritz since we moved in, and the wall panel flickered in the half light with a gibberish of broken digits.
I moved around the room like an acolyte tending to different altars—now planted on the toilet or hunched over it, now leaning heavily on the glass door of the shower, now standing at the sink staring at my haggard, puffy face. I opened the drawer beneath and fished out a bottle of pills—one bottle among many, filling compartments meant for combs and soap and razors—and swallowed one, two, a handful. After a while they would hit home, and I would shimmy my legs, flail my arms, stretch my face muscles into a Munchian scream. Except when the pain was deep, layers down inside my chest, and there was nothing to do but sit with it on the cold, unheated floor.
The light would come up gradually, the clock on my phone creeping on toward six. Eventually I would leave the bathroom, sometimes wrung out and exhausted enough to fade back into a twenty-minute sleep, but sometimes still aching and burning—in which case I would pad through the master bedroom, past my sleeping wife, out onto the landing that sat at the junction of the house’s long T-shape.
How did he get to this terrible place? Here’s where Douthat’s sickness story takes on the narrative shape of myth. The story begins in Washington, when Ross and his wife decided they had had enough of the city, and wanted to return to their New England roots. Ross had a good job as a New York Times columnist. He wrote books, and gave speeches. His wife Abby was a journalist and a book writer too. They were able to sell their Capitol Hill row house for a huge profit, and lit out for Connecticut. They bought a million-dollar 18th century farmhouse, which he says was a financial reach, as well as a project that would require some fixer-upping. But this would be good for him, he told himself:
And truth be told, I didn’t really think of it as a reach at all, because at that moment in my life I only really believed in upside. My childhood inheritance included reasonably strong Christian beliefs, and my profession required me to comment frequently on religion, which meant that during our years in Washington I wrote my share of words on the problem of evil—the why-does-God-let-bad-things-happen-to-good-people question—usually making the case that much of American Christianity teaches people the wrong answers, encouraging them to believe that actually bad things shouldn’t happen if you’re good, that the American Dream should be yours if you just stay in God’s good graces and follow the paths that He’s marked out, as straight as I-95 running north.
I had a similar critique of the secular meritocracy in which I had been educated: that because it asked its climbers to work so hard and jump so high, it encouraged a false idea that we had somehow earned all our privileges, that our SAT scores and extracurricular accomplishments meant that we genuinely deserved to rule. But despite these critiques, there was still a sense in which I believed in exactly these ideas myself—or at least for myself—as I passed through college into adulthood, achieved the career as a writer that I wanted, won the wife I wanted, the job I wanted, the kids I wanted, and now the house and country life I wanted, too.
“It’s really impressive, Ross,” a business-minded ex-military friend of mine said when we chatted about our big move. “You set this goal for yourself and you guys did it. You just did it.” That was basically how I thought of myself at that point in my life. I was the guy who did things.
Shortly after they bought the house, but before they left Washington, Douthat fell ill, with debilitating symptoms cascading downwards on him, landing him in the ER. He writes that “beneath it was a feeling that was hard to describe except as a sense of invasion, of something under my skin and inside my veins and muscles that wasn’t supposed to be there.” What you realize later is that he is describing a possession. No, I don’t believe that Ross Douthat was demonically possessed, but as I read on, the way this thing — eventually identified by doctors as Lyme disease — behaved and affected him reminded me of a malign spirit having seized the writer’s mind and body.
It takes a long time for doctors to figure out what he has and how to treat him. Douthat’s particular descriptions of the various searing pains he endured are vivid and detailed, so much so that you find yourself wincing. He ties the physical agony tightly to the psychological suffering too, as he struggles to find out just what is wrong with him, to reassure his pregnant wife that he’s going to be okay, and to cope with friends who wonder if maybe he might be losing his mind.
One thing that jumps out about The Deep Places in this Covid era is how frustrating it can be to deal with medical science. All the back-and-forth over ivermectin and other non-traditional treatments? Douthat dealt with that constantly regarding Lyme. Doctors would tell him that it was all in his head, or that this could be handled with a program of this or that antibiotic — and nothing worked. It is profoundly unsettling to realize how blind science can be. We don’t want to think of it that way. We want scientists to have all the answers. But sometimes they don’t, and their own epistemological blind spots keep them from seeing their way to potential answers. In this passage, Douthat speaks of something that has become clearer in the Covid era:
The incentive structures forged by the CDC were a fascinating case study in how bureaucracy shapes science as much as the other way around, how without any conscious decision, let alone conspiracy, scientific research can end up pushed again and again down the same well-worn tracks. The narrow diagnostic criteria became the benchmark that researchers followed whenever they applied for public grants, so that Lyme research increasingly focused only on the most certain diagnoses and left all ambiguous cases and potential false negatives alone. This approach ratified the establishment’s confidence in their own rules of evidence: Studies would claim that upwards of 90 percent of Lyme patients had the telltale rash, for instance . . . but only after making the rash one of the key criteria for admitting patients to the study in the first place.
The admonition to “follow the science” is based on the idea that science is always a reliable path to discovering the truth. And that is broadly true when it comes to matters of biology. What Douthat shows, though, is that many scientists think they are proceeding neutrally towards discovery, when in fact their pathways have been predetermined by bureaucratic priorities or outright prejudice. More:
The deeper I went into the world of the chronically sick, the more people I met, the more testimonials and case histories I read, and the more I familiarized myself with the scientific background of the debate, the more impossible—and infuriating—it seemed that an entire medical establishment could be ignoring, denying, and dismissing the scale of suffering taking place all around them, not in some far-distant or exotic place but in their own hometown, their children’s schools, the street or house next door.
But then again, I could also see how the divide sustained itself, because the deeper I went into the world of chronic sickness, the more I could feel the tug of paranoia, the sense that the world is not as I had imagined and who knows what else might be true. I could feel the experience of illness and bafflement remaking me, and I could see in other people how far this remaking could go—well beyond just taking extra antibiotics and doubting the wisdom of the CDC, into a more comprehensive rejection of any establishment wisdom, any mainstream consensus.
Douthat’s fight against chronic Lyme opened his eyes to a darker reality of life in contemporary America:
The only place to turn for real solidarity was the secret fraternity into which I had been initiated—not just Lyme patients, but the much larger group to whom a confession of chronic illness (and as I said, I confessed my situation to everybody) opened up. In my wanderings for work, in my visits to green rooms and radio studios, in chance encounters and long online conversations, I constantly proved the truth of Scott Alexander’s observation: There was extraordinary suffering everywhere, people dealing with pain of every variety, with conditions diagnosable and not, that had been largely invisible to me until I came into the country, cleared the filter, and experienced that misery myself. I had made the journey in my thirties, earlier in life than many of my fellow countrymen. In general, the conversations I had were with men and women a little older than me, for whom their forties and fifties had become an education in all the things that can go wrong with a human body, all the places pain can enter and make itself at home. For the young, intense physical suffering was a lightning strike; for older people it gradually became the weather.
There was comfort there, of a sort: I was just living under a storm front that had rolled in a little early. But there was also a feeling of betrayal, because so little in my education had prepared me for this part of life—the part that was just endurance, just suffering, with all the normal compensations of embodiment withdrawn, a heavy ashfall blanketing the experience of food and drink and natural beauty. And precious little in the world where I still spent much of my increasingly strange life, the conjoined world of journalism and social media, seemed to offer any acknowledgment that life was actually like this for lots of people—meaning not just for the extraordinarily unlucky, the snake-bit and lightning-struck, but all the people whose online and social selves were just performances, masks over some secret pain.
I was telling someone just the other day that the longer I live, the more I realize the profound truth in that coffee-mug saying: “Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a great battle.” Re-reading Ross’s book yesterday, I found myself regretting having popped off recently at a nasty person who had insulted me publicly. I know enough about that sad man’s life to recognize that his public viciousness is probably his way of coping with a lot of emotional pain. And I found out just this weekend that there might be serious physical illness present with him. I need to learn not to be so quick to take the bait, and lash out at people.
One of the great strengths of The Deep Places is how Douthat lays bare this archipelago of pain, hidden from ourselves by our isolation from each other, and perhaps by the felt need not to be seen to complain. How very strange that we live in a cultural moment in which certain forms of suffering, or alleged suffering, have been weaponized as a means to social and political power, but other forms of actual, provable suffering — like that Douthat found treading in the deep places — exist only marginally in our consciousness. Why is that, do you think? I had to put the book down for a few minutes and think about all the people I know in my own circles who are dealing with intense, chronic suffering — not just physical, but private pains like failed marriages, lost children, broken friendships, poverty, and more. I’m thinking of a good friend who is outwardly a cheerful, energetic man, but who carries inside him fathomless pain from abandonment. I’m thinking of two other good friends, both same-sex attracted Christians, who are living chastely out of obedience, and carrying the cross of loneliness, yet knowing that many gay folks would despise them for their religious convictions, and many conservative Christians would withdraw from them because of their disordered desires. I could make a list all day. Douthat’s book invites us to think hard about the suffering we share.
I am thinking now of something the future St. John of Kronstadt counseled the future St. Alexei Mechev, a Russian Orthodox priest whose wife had died, leaving him in poverty, with four (I think) children to raise. He was overwhelmed. Father John came to visit him, and told him to join his suffering with the suffering of others, and then he would find it easier to bear. Father Alexei tried it … and became one of the most beloved priests in Moscow. People would line up down the streets for the meek little man to hear their confessions. And he became a saint, as did his son Father Sergei, martyred in the gulag. As Douthat writes about the hidden suffering:
It’s a commonplace observation by now that the internet transforms the experience of human social life into a meeting of facades, a whirl of bright, shiny images of happiness and health that conceal the real, embodied self. But chronic illness dramatically clarifies just how much this world of surfaces and curated selves lies to its inhabitants, to both the healthy and the sick. It lies to the healthy about the likelihood that they will one day suffer, the reality that even in modernity the grimmest passages in the book of Ecclesiastes still apply. And it lies to the suffering, day after day, about how alone they really are.
Douthat is a Catholic, and writes about how his faith was a crutch to him in his agonies. He uses the word “crutch” on purpose, quoting Jesse “The Body” Ventura putting down religious believers as weak. Douthat says yes, absolutely, his faith was a crutch. How else was he supposed to keep walking without it? He writes:
But what I learned from my illness is that chronic suffering can make belief in a providential God, if you have such a thing going in, feel essential to your survival, no matter how much you may doubt God’s goodness when the pain is at its worst. To believe that your suffering is for something, that you are being asked to bear up under it, that you are being in some sense supervised and tested and possibly chastised in a way that’s ultimately for your good, if you can only make it through the schooling—all this is tremendously helpful to maintaining simple sanity and basic hope.
The Deep Places is at times a meditation on why Jesus said that “blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see God.” Here is Ross talking about how he and his wife just did not imagine that this could happen to them. Things like severe chronic illness and financial ruin resulting from it are problems other people have, not successful young professionals like themselves. They were too casual about buying the dream house that turned into a haunted mansion:
But in part it was just our own amazing folly. We had imagined ourselves buying a “forever home” (now a terrifying phrase, evocative of You’ve always been the caretaker, Mr. Torrance), and we had felt fortunately flush with cash, so our negotiations had not included the most rigorous comparisons to nearby homes, or any real attempt to assess whether the eccentricities we loved about the house, its age and rambling property, might be serious impediments to resale. It was enough that the previous owners had dropped the price a lot; surely that showed we were getting a bargain! Honestly, we had felt a little sorry for them—the idiotic pity that spoiled youth feels for age—and imagined that we were somehow doing them a kindness by accepting their final counter instead of trying to squeeze them to take twenty thousand dollars less. (In our defense, or at least mine, the sickness was already at work by the time we reached the last stage of negotiations, and my memory of my thought process is a fog.)
For our folly we were repaid.
Were they ever! Fortunately, they had resources. But this too brought with it painful knowledge:
All this was possible only because of privilege, of course. We were borrowing from my father on top of our own professional-class earnings, and I was fortunate enough to have the kind of job that I could do without having to rise early and commute to an office, and indeed without seeing anyone at all on the days when I was incapable of normal human contact. Had I been a lawyer or a doctor, or for that matter just a different kind of journalist—a real reporter rather than a pontificator—I would have lost my job and we would have simply gone under in the first year of my collapse.
This relative good fortune was hard to appreciate in the utter depths, when I would have traded any amount of money for even a pittance of improvement, but it became more meaningful as I made my glacial sort of progress. And with a sense of my own relative luck came the further realization of just how much doom this kind of disease could deliver. If I was so badly off, with the cushion of savings to pay for treatment, the ability to earn money from home, and the perfect skill set to sift the internet for help, how many people were simply lost from the beginning—consigned to unemployment and isolation, with both treatment and knowledge held cruelly beyond their reach? There was no way to know for sure, but I could guess roughly in my head: If 400,000 cases of Lyme a year yielded 50,000 chronic cases, and if even only a few thousand of those were as bad as mine, then, over the accumulated years, tens of thousands of people had to be facing impossible challenges without the moneyed, highly educated advantages that helped us, barely, to survive.
Here, I think, is the core of the book. It’s from a conversation Douthat had with one of his doctors:
“So I have to ask,” he said as I processed all this, “how would you feel if you had to live the rest of your life this way? Could you do it?” I shook my head. I was proving, day by day, that the answer was yes. But I still could not bring myself to entertain the question.
ESTRAGON: I can’t go on like this.
VLADIMIR: That’s what you think.
This is where Douthat’s struggle with chronic illness becomes a metaphor for life in this vale of tears. What if it won’t ever get better than it is now? Could you live with it? You think you can’t … but what if you can? Is that good news, or bad news?
This is life! The deepest weakness of our civilization today is that we are so afraid of suffering that we are creating all kinds of barriers and hedges against it, even if it means giving up our freedom. We are all waiting for Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, to create a system where we can feel free from suffering, no matter what it costs. Still, there is no escaping suffering, not for those who want to live in truth (and even those who are willing to live a lie to hide from the unbearable truth; none of us get out of her alive).
Chapter Seven of this book is going to be one of the most talked about, because it’s where the cautious, cerebral New York Times columnist lets his freak flag fly. Here’s how it starts:
There is a version of this book that doesn’t include this chapter, and for a certain kind of reader it might be the better book to read. I want this account to be helpful to the cause of chronic Lyme patients, and to anyone working on the frontiers of medicine or suffering from chronic illness. I hope to convince the skeptical reader that the case for the persistence of Lyme disease is powerful, and that the regimens prescribed by Lyme specialists represent a reasonable and empirical response to an extremely knotty problem. I don’t want readers to come away from my account thinking that chronic disease of any kind is just a mystery, a mind-body phenomenon beyond scientific ken. Which means that I want to present myself as a fundamentally reliable narrator, open-minded but not naïve, vulnerable but not an outright wreck, aware of my own limitations and the possible doubts about my story, but neither paranoid nor mad. But I also want to tell a true story, and that means going a little further into the medical borderlands, deeper into the stranger aspects of my own bodily experience. So that’s what this chapter is for, separated from the main narrative so that it can be read independently—though it will bleed into the final chapters, and its revelations are part of what I’ve brought with me back up out of the dark. Still, readers who find these parts of the story hard to credit can know that I sympathize with their reaction, and I hope they find the rest persuasive even so.
It’s the woo-woo chapter, the one in which, out of desperation, he gives himself over to scientifically suspect methods of healing. And — lo and behold! — they work. The first person he sees is a practitioner of kinesiology. Though some of her chattiness (about chemtrails) was off-putting, Douthat found that the woman’s willingness to entertain the idea that he wasn’t crazy to be uplifting. This is not how he would have regarded it prior to his years of struggling with conventional medicine:
My new self, though, regarded her radical openness rather differently—as a feature of the kind of mind that was sometimes more likely than the rest of us to grope its way to veiled or disreputable truths. Give that feature too much freedom, too much rein, and you would end up with a purely conspiratorial worldview, impervious to contrary facts, ready to throw out vaccination or refuse chemotherapy. But exclude such openness entirely and you end up with, well, the mindset that I had encountered across my months of frustration, where the absence of an exact test result matching a set of bureaucratic criteria meant that doctor after doctor would spread their hands, hint that you were crazy, and basically abandon you to pain.
So I didn’t become a chemtrails believer in her care, or imagine that her worldview could simply substitute for official medical knowledge. But without some element of her open-to-all-theories attitude, the progress of science becomes the recitation of consensus. And for someone like me, for whom that recitation had been a closed door in my face, her existence was a gift.
Douthat goes on to talk about how he bought a Rife machine, a device that focuses electromagnetic fields at certain frequencies on the body. It sounds absolutely crazy, but there is some evidence that high frequency waves can work against certain maladies. As a Harvard-educated, Times-writing member of the American elite, Douthat was afraid to open the door to nuttery. He writes about reading the instruction manual to the device:
The preamble felt a bit like being recruited into Scientology, handed an E-Meter, and told that maybe enlightenment awaited but that L. Ron Hubbard Inc. offered no guarantee that it would actually be achieved. The list, though, was something much weirder. Did all the endless numbers, the complex frequency combinations, the treatments for obscure diseases represent the fruits of a multigenerational labor, some kind of secret investigation conducted by the sick and suffering over not just years but decades? It felt like something out of a paranoid fiction, a slice of invented Americana by way of Paul Auster or Thomas Pynchon.
Was it just a hoax? Were the Rife peddlers sitting down at their computers with a random number generator and a copy of the Index of Diseases and Injuries, playing mix and match, relying on the placebo effect to hoodwink the rubes, and secure in the knowledge that nobody was ever actually going to fire up the Rife machine to treat, say, Eustachian tube inflammation (channel number 263, recommended frequencies: 1550, 880, 37233, 803, 3614, and half a dozen more)? That was disturbing and depressing, but maybe not as unsettling as the possibility that a real collection of people with Eustachian tube inflammation had compiled these frequencies from their own private experiments, establishing a layer of secret knowledge beneath the shell of quackery.
But desperation pushed him to try anything. In this powerful passage, he recounts strange signs he encountered in this journey, and meaningful dreams, a seeming chance encounter in an airport, a shocking answer to prayer in a church, and so forth. It took his being utterly smashed by this disease to break down his New Englander’s defenses against the weird:
What else was down there with me, besides the apparently vast community of Rifers, the Magnetizer with her muscle testing and her chemtrail theories? The weird shit was how I described it to myself—the deer on my mother’s lawn and the hellmouth beneath its hooves, the dreams with their vampires and armed librarians, the bugs crawling out of the walls of our country house, the sand dollar gleaming ivory beneath my spasm-ridden feet. Was God there? He was supposed to be way up above, enthroned on high, not mucking around in the underground with broken things underfoot and strange machinery half-visible. But maybe His emissaries were down there. Maybe prayers were more effective once you were down there. Maybe it was easier for the signal to reach . . . somebody when you weren’t inside the comfortable HGTV living room anymore.
There’s one more part of the book that profoundly speaks to our current moment. It’s the chapter in which Douthat discusses the possibility that Lyme disease was created in the Plum Island lab, a government research facility off the Connecticut coast, where they study animal diseases. Look how close it is to Old Lyme, for which the disease is named because of its outbreak there:
The Plum Island director in the 1950s was a German scientist brought over from the ruins of the Third Reich, whose speciality was tick-borne diseases. Douthat says that there is solid evidence that US Government scientists researched tick-borne diseases there as a biological weapon. More:
So, as strange as it seems, a scenario where some American enemy—Korean or Cuban, Russian or Red Chinese— could be dosed en masse with something like my own tick-borne infection was not only pondered but actively pursued by the United States government in the early Cold War years. (Though one assumes the frigid Russian winter would be as hard on ticks as it was on Napoleon and Hitler.) And despite finding the idea absurd at first, I have come around to the strategic plausibility of this approach: A nation full of people in the shape that I was in during my first year of illness would, indeed, be a nation ripe for conquest, confused and despairing and ready to succumb.
Does this sound crazy to you? Well, in recent days we have learned that the US Government, through the National Institutes of Health led by the Evangelical Christian Francis Collins and his deputy Anthony Fauci, actually did fund gain-of-function research on bat viruses at the Wuhan lab. That is, the US taxpayer helped pay Chinese scientists to figure out if bat coronaviruses could be engineered to be more deadly in humans — and the NIH people lied about it!
Follow the science. Trust the medical authorities. The NIH gain-of-function story takes on a certain dimension in light of the story Ross Douthat tells. He writes angrily:
You couldn’t trust the CDC to roll out a reliable coronavirus test: They botched it, and a lab in Washington State had to fill the breach. You couldn’t trust the FDA to be creative in the face of thousands of Americans dying every day: Operation Warp Speed delivered vaccines astonishingly quickly, but the FDA stuck with a cautious approval process, even for vaccines that were already approved in Europe and South Korea. You couldn’t trust the WHO to even acknowledge that the virus was primarily airborne, until months and months after everyone who followed the data took for granted that it was. And from the beginning of the pandemic to its still-unfinished end, there were weirdos on the internet who were more reliable guides to what was happening, what was possible, and what should actually be done than Anthony Fauci or any official information source.
If you take all these COVID-era tendencies and imagine them applied to a debate over a more shadowy disease, one that incapacitates but rarely kills, whose spread has happened slowly, without blaring headlines and immense political pressure to do something in response—well, then you’ve imagined the flawed medical system, the institutional science, that has helped the Lyme epidemic keep burning to this day.
In the book’s closing paragraphs, Douthat expressly likens what happened to him to demonic possession. To be perfectly clear, he’s only analogizing it. He says that this experience taught him the folly of regarding the body as like a machine that can be tinkered with to be repaired. Instead, it is more like an ecosystem, one that can be taken over by forms of life that cannot be eradicated. This passage is chilling:
The feeling of possession by another life form, by spirochetes or parasites or viruses, isn’t the same as the supernatural possession that was so much more feared in the past. A bacterium won’t speak with your voice in ancient languages or induce you to levitate above a baffled priest. But neither are the two entirely distinct. An invading illness doesn’t have the malign intelligence ascribed to devils, but it can use you for its evolutionary purposes all the same. My own mind felt constantly besieged during the worst of my sickness, and there were fleeting moments when it seemed as though the invasion had literally displaced my normal consciousness, installing something despairing or rageful in its place. And other sufferers I’ve met, for whom brain fog and other mental symptoms were much worse, report a different kind of displacement amid a Lyme infection, where the mind or self is shoved aside and a kind of nothing takes its place, something without memory or purpose, like the literal expression of a mindless bacterium, not possession but dispossession, with a nullity where the self should rightfully be.
The first time I read The Deep Places, in manuscript form, I thought Ross had written an exemplary memoir of the experience of chronic illness, something I could relate to. On second read, I understand that he has done far more than that. The Deep Places is a book about what it means to live in America today, one where people are unbuffered by religious conviction in the face of uncontrollable nature, where we think our money and our technology is going to protect us from sinking to the depths of misery and despair. He writes near the conclusion:
I am writing this story in part for those chronically suffering, more numerous than the healthy ever realize—to give them hope that their condition can be changed even if it can’t be eliminated, that they might be able to save their own lives even if they feel abandoned by their doctors, that they might, like me, be able to get, not fully well yet, but better, genuinely better.
He’s talking about those suffering from chronic disease, but he’s really talking to all of us. We all suffer from the chronic disease called death. Read The Deep Places in this key, and you will understand that it applies to you, even if you are healthy and wealthy and wise. Ross Douthat meant to write a book about persevering through chronic illness, but what he has done, whether he knows it or not, is write as a pilgrim who has returned from a far place, speaking to a nation that has forgotten the meaning of suffering — which is to say, to a people who try hard not to think about how precarious we all are, and how we are only one tick bite away from catastrophe.
The Divine Comedy opens with the pilgrim Dante lost in a dark wood, unable to find his way out. Heaven sends the poet of antiquity Virgil to lead him to safety. Virgil tells Dante:
‘Therefore, for your sake, I think it wise
you follow me: I will be your guide,
leading you, from here, through an eternal place
‘where you shall hear despairing cries
and see those ancient souls in pain
as they bewail their second death…
Only by going through the deep places, to the very depth of all being, where Satan dwells in a lake of ice, can the pilgrim Dante ascend toward paradise. This is what Dante’s Inferno is all about. The second volume is Dante’s Purgatorio, where those souls who have been spared damnation, but who aren’t yet pure enough to bear the weight of God’s glory in Heaven, learn how to share their suffering on the journey Home. Non-Catholics need not take Purgatorio literally. It is an allegory of what life is like for Christians in this life, struggling out of the deeps to the heights of fellowship with the All-Holy. One of the great themes of Dante’s Purgatorio is the reconciliation of the suffering with their own pain as a form of purification, and the re-establishment of compassion and community.
In The Deep Places, Ross Douthat takes us with him through his own Inferno, and disembarks with us at the foot of the holy mountain of Purgatorio. I cannot wait to read what he writes next. With this book, he has elevated himself from a mere observer on politics, religion, and culture, into something more extraordinary, and more needed in this time: a prophet. Yes, he’s my friend, but it’s still true. Order the book, read it (or listen to the author read it in the audiobook, and see for yourself.