Skip to main content

Everything I Have Is Yours: A Marriage

Review

Everything I Have Is Yours: A Marriage

When Eleanor Henderson and her husband, Aaron, chose the Billie Holiday tune that provides her memoir’s title as their wedding song, they couldn’t have imagined how painfully prophetic a description of their marriage it would be. EVERYTHING I HAVE IS YOURS is a meticulously detailed, often grueling account of Aaron’s decade-long battle with a bewildering assortment of mental and physical ailments that would test the limits of even the healthiest union and reveals medicine’s frustrating inability to address some intractable conditions.

Henderson, who teaches writing at Ithaca College, begins her story in 2011, when Aaron first experiences an unexplained rash, along with pain, weight loss and fatigue. These symptoms, and others in an evolving downward spiral, launch the couple on a seemingly endless search for a definitive diagnosis and treatment, leading them through an ever-lengthening list of medical specialties and a good-sized pharmacopeia of prescription drugs. At one time or another, Aaron is diagnosed with schizophrenia, delusional parasitosis and Lyme disease. Doctors even consider if he has the vestigial remains of a twin growing in his abdomen.

...a meticulously detailed, often grueling account of Aaron’s decade-long battle with a bewildering assortment of mental and physical ailments that would test the limits of even the healthiest union..."

As Henderson chronicles Aaron’s struggles, ones exacerbated by alcoholism and drug use, she simultaneously journeys back to their first meeting in a record shop in North Palm Beach, Florida, when she was 17 and he was 24. Even she admits she might have sensed that “our worlds were not aligned, what an act of will it would take, for us to fit the facts of our lives together.” But their attraction was instantaneous, and Aaron even followed his new girlfriend, who called herself “Nell” at the time, to Vermont after she enrolled at Middlebury College.

Aaron, a high school dropout who eventually secures his GED, has never followed a conventional path. He doesn’t experience any periods of sustained employment, and his most successful effort to generate real income involves selling off his father’s collectibles on eBay after he’s incapacitated by a stroke.

Even in the idyllic early days of their relationship, there’s a sense of impending crisis. Both Aaron and Eleanor emerge from outwardly comfortable circumstances that nonetheless seem to contain the seeds of future problems. Aaron’s treatment exposes a history of sexual abuse, while Eleanor learns only as an adult of her father’s long-ago episode of paranoid schizophrenia and suicide attempt.  

One of the book’s recurring themes is the quest to discover if Aaron’s persistent rashes and skin lesions reveal that he’s suffering from Morgellons disease, a controversial affliction whose victims insist, among other things, that fibers are emerging from their skin. In the essay “The Devil’s Bait,” in her book THE EMPATHY EXAMS, Leslie Jamison reports on a Morgellons conference and explores the controversy over whether the disease is even legitimate. “This isn’t an essay about whether Morgellons disease is real,” Jamison writes. “That’s probably obvious by now.” The ambiguity of that statement infuriates Eleanor. She and Aaron even travel to Germany to attend a similar event, but they leave feeling no closer to an answer to that vexing question.

Anyone who is dubious about the connection between mind and body when it comes to health might be persuaded to question that position after reading this book. Aaron’s suffering is compounded by stress, and from Henderson’s description of the days he spends in isolation in their bedroom or obsessed with the appearance of some new, often bizarre, symptom, he’s never far from the edge of an emotional collapse triggered by his physical ailments.

Although Henderson, whose highly praised first novel TEN THOUSAND SAINTS was based on stories from Aaron’s childhood and teenage years, is an elegant and observant writer, EVERYTHING I HAVE IS YOURS is often a difficult book to read. The account of Aaron’s ailments, along with at least one suicide attempt and a psychiatric ward hospitalization, is almost unrelentingly grim, and even the occasional bright moments are quickly eclipsed by a fresh onslaught of problems.

Amid all of this, the couple deals with the normal challenges of raising two young sons, and it’s terrifying to reflect on all the suffering the boys endured in the chaos of the household. Unfortunately, Henderson’s decision to employ a non-chronological narrative as they work their way from Florida to Vermont, New York City, Florida again, Charlottesville, Virginia, and finally, Ithaca --- 12 homes in all --- makes the attempt to pinpoint specific events in time difficult and renders her account, which ends with the arrival of COVID-19 early last year, at times unnecessarily opaque.

“Perhaps every marriage is a madness,” Henderson reflects. “To agree to see the world the way another sees the world --- what is that vow but a shared delusion?” For Aaron and Eleanor, that often perilous but intensely loving journey continues, even as she acknowledges the constant tension between the notions that “marriage can mean plotting an escape all the time and choosing to stay anyway.” One can only wish them well and hope that if something that might be called a cure isn’t available to Aaron, they can find a status that feels like a true safe harbor from all the storms they’ve endured.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on August 20, 2021

Everything I Have Is Yours: A Marriage
by Eleanor Henderson

  • Publication Date: August 10, 2021
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Flatiron Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250787947
  • ISBN-13: 9781250787941