The healing power of words

One of my short (very short) pieces was published in online journal Crack The Spine. “Curative Fiction: Cooley, Mothers, and Crises of Faith” was written in reaction to reading Martha Cooley’s “The Archivist”. It is not a book review, but more of a book response – a reflection on how it resonated and took on an added layer of meaning for me. The situations and conversations in the book reminded me of my mother, and looking back on the piece, I was struck by the fact I am now as old as she was when she died 20 years ago.  As serendipity would have it, I received the letter of acceptance on my mother’s birthday. 

It’s published at but it’s short enough to include it below

Reprinted from Crack the Spine, Issue 119, July 15, 2014



by k.m. huber

Atlanta 2005

Fifty years ago, my mother sat in a small room, trembling as she held her newborn baby. Years later, after several nervous breakdowns, she would describe the moment as an overwhelming fear of losing what she dared to love. She saw me as a casualty of that fear. Ten years ago, she mistook pneumonia for a bad cold and ignored it too long. A life of chain–smoking and a weak immune system complicated her recovery, and after two months in intensive care, she let go of this world. I still suspect that she wanted to catch up with my father, who had succumbed to cancer four months earlier. No matter that they had been divorced for 20 years; their lives had been interwoven in such a way that it made an odd kind of sense that she would join him in death. They had come to peace with each other.

A teacher of mine once said that books can save your life. He also liked to say that it is often the book that finds us, not the other way around. I have, indeed, encountered books that seemed to arrive as answers to unasked questions. They sometimes provided gentle reminders of things forgotten, nudges back toward a wandering path, and sometimes they challenged, hitting deep and sudden like an unexpected blast of cold wind. One such a blast swept over me recently while reading Martha Cooley’s The Archivist. When the librarian sends his wife into virtual exile to wrestle with her demons, I felt my mother reading over my shoulder, nodding her head knowingly. Cooley’s characters found refuge in music and poetry, in diaries and dissertations. In their need to write, I recognized a familiar need to exorcise demons by setting into a sea of paper. As we circumnavigate, we seek validation, we test ourselves and our feelings and our truths. Sometimes, we return to where we started, like Dorothy leaving Oz with new perspectives to color the world.

My mother wrote letters, many of which were to my grandmother and ended up in my filing cabinet with other mementos from both their lives. Both women were central to my life, and both had serious psychiatric issues.

Martha Cooley’s book took me back into a space I have not explored in a long while. Unable to put the book down, I took it to the gym with me and walked three miles more on the treadmill than I had planned, unable to stop reading. As the archivist struggled to frame the memories of his dead wife and her battles with faith and identity, I began to walk faster. As he began to relive that relationship through the student whose issues ran close to his own, I found myself breathless, my mother fast on my heels. Though the issues of Jewish identity that Cooley explores are distant from the world that my mother inhabited, the questioning of faith and identity hit home, striking deep into the unconscious regions that my mother still inhabits. Through Cooley’s pages, I heard her voice again with a new understanding.

A profound love of literature weaves through The Archivist as its characters search for answers through poetry and ideas, but an even more compelling undercurrent reaffirms the importance of human connections. Though he had failed as an ally in his wife’s troubled journey, the archivist finds redemption in being able to offer another seeker the Ariadne’s thread to return from her labyrinth of pain. He gives her the story that will help her to heal. In The Archivist, Martha Cooley gives me a story I needed as well.

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