Looking the Worst in the Eye

In Love with Daylight: A Memoir of Recovery

by Wilfrid Sheed
Simon and Schuster, 252 pp., $23.00

Wilfrid Sheed’s In Love with Daylight describes several recent years he spent fighting illness, addiction, and depression, winning through to that strangely elusive condition in which the plain light of day, without being unbearable, is bright enough to keep the heart up.

Sheed’s account of his illness is underlaid by two conditions that shaped his nature. One is Catholicism, and lest the secular reader be put off by this, it has to be said that Sheed’s Catholicism is lightly and gracefully worn, skeptical, anti-pietist, and nowhere offered as inspiration. It’s not even affirmed exactly, so it would be very misleading to call In Love with Daylight a book informed by Catholicism. Still, as will become clear, his reasoning and his conclusions are more “Catholic” than otherwise.

The other condition, one he has written little about before, was his getting polio at the age of fourteen. The very words of this phrase are enough to chill the heart of anyone who remembers the annual summer plagues. But, as Sheed points out, terror and revulsion are responses appropriate only to potential conditions or to the conditions of others. When it’s you and it’s happened, a different set of reflexes and imperatives are brought to bear. His chapters on his polio experience are memorable and make it possible to understand how he succeeded in coping with what was to come in later life.

He summons up the circumstances of adolescent illness with a harrowing clarity:

But perhaps my sharpest memory of all is of writhing on my bed a few weeks before I got polio, grappling with the possibility of someday catching it myself. We’d just been given our new rooms at school for the fall, which makes the scene all the more vivid since I was still seeing it for the first time, and the day was unseasonably hot, and for a moment or two I was next thing to scared out of my wits. I couldn’t take it, that’s all. I’d go crazy that’s all, I’d go crazy if I got polio and had to give up baseball and, of course, football—and walking, which I’d almost forgotten about. And I’m sure that if someone had chosen that moment to show me a picture of myself as I would look a year or two hence, crawling spindle-shanked, my face an apparent mask of pain, over an ice-cold floor to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I’d have gone crazy on the spot.

But being fourteen equips a person with formidable reserves of energy and courage and once upon a time it also furnished certainties. These in Sheed’s case were the principles of Catholicism. “As a matter of fact,” he writes.

for years I believed that my own smooth adjustment to my losses was entirely the consequence of the religious faith…. Indeed, a firm belief in miracles and the power of prayer …

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