Book Review: The Villains Who Snapped My Spine
Reviewed by Genevieve Hartman
A fast-paced, sardonic memoir about the lead-up, diagnosis, and treatment of a life-altering disease
The Villains Who Snapped My Spine by A. H. Nazzareno is a memoir laced with pain, dark humor, and the overarching drive to survive.
Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nazzareno was diagnosed with myxopapillary ependymoma, a rare condition causing tumors of the spine and brain. This narrative recounts, in vignettes that oscillate between the past and present, the last decade of Nazzareno’s life. The past is filled with the “villains” the book is named for: several uncomfortable cars, a stint as a postal worker, accidents, and other back-heavy labor. All of these masqueraded as causes of his chronic pain, prolonging the timeline between the first symptoms and the final diagnosis.
Nazzareno’s story starts in the hospital in June 2021, as he checks in for surgery, but it really begins ten years earlier, in May 2011, with a cursed white Lincoln driving through the Arizona deserts.
During this time, Nazzareno met his wife Michelle, the other key person in The Villains Who Snapped My Spine. Both college students from the East Coast, Nazzareno and Michelle become inseparable, and together they face a variety of challenges over the years.
The more common ones include crushing student loans, difficult jobs and long commutes, housing crises, and family drama. More uncommon adversities include going through countless mattresses to find one comfortable enough for Nazzareno to get a good night’s sleep and paying for chiropractic and physical therapy bills for debilitating back pain. Rarest, of course, is Nazzareno’s final diagnosis and subsequent treatment, which is so rare that there’s little research on the condition, and differing opinions on optimal treatment plans.
As far as memoirs go, this one is unique for a few reasons. First, it’s not every memoir that is written by someone in their thirties, confined to a hospital bed with a rare disease. Second, the tone is far from the austere and serious timbre that often accompanies the genre. Nazzareno is not afraid to run the gamut of emotions in his writing. In the Introduction, he expresses his desire to run from his doctor and his diagnosis, to drive West, where he and Michelle were happy in younger, more carefree days:
“I wanted to…just keep going until I reached the Prescott National Forest, the Enchanted Forest, or the arid wasteland mislabeled as the Petrified Forest. Any fucking forest, really. Simply spend the rest of my life basking in sweet, selfish bliss, because ignorance is sometimes nicer than all-seeing-eye MRI wizardry. “
This gives a sense of Nazzareno’s voice, which is as distinct as it is jaded by years of pain and hardship. It’s clear that humor is a major survival mechanism, as the whole book maintains the same trenchant, over-the-top attitude towards life’s ups and downs. Nazzareno proclaims, “I’m a simple car and coffee-loving victim that many elusive villainous entities enjoy harassing.” While he’s not afraid to identify or even complain about the unfairness of his situation, Nazzareno doesn’t appear to be letting it ruin his life; his convalescence was the catalyst for finally writing this book.
At times, the through-line of the book—the causes of his back pain and the lead-up to Nazzareno’s diagnosis—gets lost in the weeds of whatever else was happening at that moment in his life. Particularly at the beginning, it’s a bit challenging to see where everything is going, or even what Nazzareno means by “villains” at all. After the first fifty pages, the pieces start clicking together, and the focus of the writing narrows, as the fateful MRI nears to finally elucidate the last decade of pain.
The Villains Who Snapped My Spine is about a person determined to go down swinging, if he has to go down at all. The acerbic tone might not be for everyone, but the message is, because all of us, in one way or another, will need to learn to cope with unfortunate, messy complications that life throws at us. Sometimes, Nazzareno is saying, you have to laugh so you don’t cry.
Genre: Nonfiction / Memoir
Print Length: 202 pages
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