As a madwoman, writer, poet, teacher, wife, mother, feminist and self-described ""cripple,"" Mairs unfolds her life. Mairs writes that when she almost died by her own hand, ""I recognized for the first time that I was fully and soley responsible for my existence. ""This is no easy task for her: Mairs seems to have been confronted with every obstacle imaginable: the early death of her father, a fixation for unrequited love in adolescence, a too-early marriage and child, a troubled adopted son, agoraphobia, visits to the local mental ward, and, in her late 20s, multiple sclerosis. In every aspect of her life, Mairs is startlingly open. ""On Being a Cripple,"" she writes: ""First, the matter of semantics. I am a cripple. I choose this word to name me. I choose from several possibilities, the most common of which are 'handicapped' and 'disabled'! ""Crippled or not, Mairs' essays are the writings of a tortured artist with a feminist twist. ""I had gotten everything I wanted; more than to write a book: the man of my dreams, and then a daughter for him and then a fine job to put him through graduate school. I was 23 years old, poised, articulate, well-dressed, cultivated. And then one night in an Italian restaurant I stopped breathing. ""Her first attack of agoraphobia was not diagnosed until years later, but Malts does not glamorize the suffering artist routine. ""I don't think that the artist creates because she is mad. I think she wrings out what she can despite the misery and terror, despite the long blank afternoons she spends huddled in one corner of her living room couch, the voices resonating around the curve of her skull, the sudden quiet descent into the will of death."" For Mairs, writing is simply a means of staying alive; if she doesn't write, she ends up trying to kill herself. In many of her essays, she compares old quotes from earlier diaries with her current writings. From an old journal she reads, ""He is an enormously attractive man who draws out the need in me. Again. Again. Again I must grip the sides of the roller coaster and scream with pleasure-pain every dip and turn, for the ride is not fun."" Today, she realizes she still suffers from this pain-pleasure syndrome. In a journal kept 20 years later she reads, ""I will not tell anyone that I am in love with a man who doesn't love me, doesn't even want me, that I am 37 years old and still getting into such a situation. ""Reading this is much like reading a fascinating private journal-one well worth making public. Courageous candidness.