A Review of Sarah Cannon’s The Shame of Losing: The Most Honest Thing You’ll Read This Year
Review by Tyler Rose LaMay, Collateral Intern
Shame is the ugly bridesmaid’s dress that gets shoved into the dark recesses of a closet. We know it’s there, and from time to time, thoughts of it drift into our consciousness. We become adept at shoving it sideways, looking around it, keeping the torment and the guilt of our shame to ourselves. Sarah Cannon’s The Shame of Losing is an open, honest look at a life, a family, and a marriage forever changed by a traumatic event. In effect, Cannon throws open the closet door where shame is draped and lets us all inside.
In 2007, on an average fall day in Seattle, Cannon, a young mother and wife whose life is on a path to be everything she hoped it would be, gets a phone call. Her strapping woodsman of a husband has suffered a near fatal accident on the job. What follows is a journey of learning and losing.
Cannon starts by laying out all the details of the accident in the first five pages. This straightforward approach is refreshing to see after all the drawn-out suspense that defines most of our news and recreational reading. America’s wound culture is immediately satiated, allowing readers to the focus on the aftermath and the realness that Cannon shows in her experience.
It’s shameful, but everyone does it. We make comparisons to worse tragedies all the time. It’s something I try to be careful of now, knowing how it doesn’t change reality, or work in any case, to make you feel less alone. (20)
Losing calls the reader to question what they would do if life as they knew it changed irrevocably. It’s not something we think of often. To admit to ourselves that we are human, we have limits, we can’t succeed always, and sometimes, it’s healthier to lose. I see this too often, as a recent college graduate. At university, both faculty and students push themselves over the edge while trying to “do more” or “be better.” When spread too thin, we lose the ability to care deeply and connect. Losing not only forces you to slow down but reminds you it’s okay.
Cannon eases us into some softer moments. We learn about her childhood and falling in love with her husband. Cannon sets the stage, adding depth and drawing us further in with her while allowing us to process what has happened. She lets us know about her family and her past, the peaceful memories of childhood, that give us insight into the person she is now:
It was always a special treat to ride alongside Dad in the ‘46 Chevy pickup, the truck that would become a father-son weekend restoration project, the truck that would eventually be my wheels for high school. (13)
A frank and honest storyteller, Cannon includes letters she wrote, journal entries, stories, and a small script along with her narrative, showcasing her ability to relate and hold her audience close while maintaining vulnerability. She never sugarcoats what happened or how she feels, showing us her struggle with all the ambiguity present in her life and her difficult battle with it. Never pretending to be more or less than who she is, her authenticity seeps through the pages, which might be the best aspect of the work. In a time of filters and carefully posed and scripted expressions, Losing is a real story laid bare. Canon isn’t shy about telling you how hard and imperfect her process was.
My peace wasn’t always available to me the first year after Matt’s accident, nor was it the years after when I felt it “should” be. It is good practice to offer the basic seeds for a practice in mindfulness – the breathing, the mantras, the smiling – but in my experience as a trauma survivor, the most valuable tool is knowing how to hold the in-between spaces. It is a confusing place to dwell. But, patience with ambiguity is the only way. (121)
Cannon navigates this ambiguity both within herself and within those around her. From her parents who seem less interested in helping with their grandkids, to her mother-in-law who seems to be trying to take her place rather than help her, to her friends that drift away. She exposes the society we are present in today, where kind words are easy, but true actions are rare. Cannon questions whether it is her specific situation creating distance, or if it is a natural response to stress.
Were they scared to be close, knowing it was the kind of freak accident that could happen to anyone? Or was it me, pushing them away? (84)
We are called to wonder about the connections and the closeness in our own lives. What expectations do we hold to ourselves and to others? What is the reality, in comparison? How are we presenting our own stories of trauma and survival while honoring the truth and how we live with it? This seems to be the real triumph of Losing. Cannon holds up the truth of this terrible trauma that occurred in her life and at the same time finds a way to live within it and beyond it.
Cannon’s language is causal and clear, presented right there on the page. Losing is not a love story, or a story of miracles; it’s a story of reality and strength, hardship and struggle, learning and acceptance. It takes a hard look at what happens after trauma—an experience we share and don’t share all at once—when every decision we need to make is tough and our humanity reels in recovery.