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The lessons author Maggie O'Farrell learned after numerous near-death experiences

Irish author, who was an impulsive risk-taker in her earlier years, shares her insight to the frailty of life in I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death.

Maggie O’Farrell is an expert on near-death experiences having been a risk-taker.

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Maggie O’Farrell is an expert on near-death experiences having been a risk-taker.

When Irish novelist Maggie O’Farrell turned 18 she was eager to escape home, and took a job far away as a cleaner at a holistic mountain retreat. One day while walking on an isolated path, O’Farrell came upon a man, and even before he moved to block her path, her danger instinct had kicked in. O’Farrell reveals the chilling details of that encounter in her beautifully written memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death, including her quick-witted escape and the traumatizing aftermath when she discovers from local police that this same man brutally raped and murdered another woman.

O’Farrell had only ever shared this story once, in an intimate conversation with her future husband. While writing the essay, O’Farrell carefully disguised details so as not to reopen the unnamed victim’s family grief, decades later. “It made me really consider ownership of narrative because I think one of the reasons I never told anyone was not just because it was horrifying — the worst, very deepest fear realized,” O’Farrell says. “The writing of that story crystallized to me that that story doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to her.”

I Am, I Am, I Am, by Maggie O'Farrell

Knopf Canada

I Am, I Am, I Am, by Maggie O'Farrell

O’Farrell’s reasons for sharing now are highly personal. She began writing I Am, I Am, I Am as a gift for her eight-year-old daughter, who suffers from an immunological disorder that puts her life in risk whenever she is exposed to foods like peanuts and eggs. “Your job as a parent is to help her understand things,” O’Farrell says. “For a child who has these special illnesses, life can take a real surreal turn. One day you might be in ambulance or the ICU, and the next week you’re back in school learning the times tables. It was a way to make sense of what happens in those moments of peril and how you carry on living. How do you change, and what do you think about in those moments?”

O’Farrell is an expert on the subject. When she was the same age as her daughter, she contracted near-fatal encephalitis. The book describes O’Farrell’s yearlong convalescence, and how she later became an impulsive risk-taker. An avid adventure traveller, she nearly drowned after jumping off a harbour wall into the deep water below. Then there was the time she volunteered for a knife-thrower who hurled a succession of blades precariously close to her body. “In my teens and 20s, it didn’t really occur to me to take the safe option ever,” she says. “I think it’s because I was so seriously ill as a child, but it could have gone the other way and made me into a very cautious person.”

Although O’Farrell has long given up physical gambles in exchange for parenthood, which arrived with its own traumas, writing I Am, I Am, I Am felt like an emotional risk. She may focus on near-death experiences, but these 17 stories are the testaments of a fierce survivor. “I want people to take the message that the membrane between life and death is so frail, and we can all cross it or come near it at any time without warning,” she says. “We need to value every single moment we have.”

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