With the skill of an improvisational jazz musician, Eva Hagberg Fisher composes a harrowing, heartfelt tale about sickness and health, richer and poorer, better or worse—pillars of vows that often go unspoken between people who love each other. Her recent book, How to be Loved: A Memoir of Lifesaving Friendship ($24, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), demonstrates her ability to convey the allegro-paced mental spiral that a serious medical diagnosis (or two, or three, in Fisher’s case) would trigger, and the subsequent quiet reflection—bars of gentle adagio, if you will—best executed in profound, more succinct phrasing.
As much as the book details the author’s distressing chain of frustratingly indefinable illnesses (a thickened pituitary stalk was indicative of a potential brain tumor; dizziness and wild dreams were the least of the symptoms that caused Fisher to embark on a “desert vision quest” around the Southwest to outrun an unexpected mold sensitivity), it is foremost a vehicle to tribute the friendships that held her when all signs pointed to fracture.
“I didn’t want this to be a memoir in which people would be like, ‘Wow, poor thing, so many difficult events,’” says Fisher, an architecture scholar who recently returned to New York after spending almost a decade in the East Bay, where she moved in 2010 to complete a doctorate in visual and narrative culture at UC Berkeley. (She says writing the book—which has garnered high praise from The New York Times, People and Entertainment Weekly—was a “beautiful refuge” from a highly publicized Title IX legal battle she waged in 2016 against a professor for harassment.) “Friendship was always the inspiration for the book,” Fisher says, “which I think is really about the importance of empathy—being able to acknowledge someone else’s pain and pause long enough to give them a gift of attention and presence.”
The story’s anchor alliances include Lauren, the author’s patient companion on the desert vision quest. When our protagonist becomes darkly enmeshed in New York’s early aughts drug scene, Leila gives her a safe space to dry out. Then there’s Allison, a wise elder stricken with terminal cancer, whose presence is constant from the beginning of the book to the end—even in death. Allison may have had the deepest understanding of Fisher’s battles with illness, from the appetite for pre-surgery sexual conquests to the, at times, tempting retreat into isolation.
“I can really overwhelm people with all of my stuff, which is why I’ve heard that I am an acquired taste,” says Fisher. “But I deeply value my friendships. I am not a fair-weather friend. I return the investment.” Perhaps the soundest vow to make on the eternal quest to be loved.
Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco
Photography by: Gregg Delman