Book Review

Lucien Darjeun Meadows on
a memoir by Emily Pifer
Autumn House, 2022
“How, anyway, do you build something whole out of a series of fracturing? This was never going to be a story; it was always going to be a scratching, a clawing.” So reflects Emily Pifer in her debut memoir The Running Body, winner of the 2021 Autumn House Nonfiction Prize. In this book, Pifer considers her upbringing in Ohio and West Virginia as she discusses her past-present-future as a runner, and she circles, through the ovals of the running track and her lyric paragraphs, around “the summer” when her body became “the running body.”

Across the six sections of her memoir, Pifer turns and re-turns to that pivotal summer when, as a rising track and field collegiate runner at Ohio University, she travels to Eugene, Oregon, for the National Track and Field Meet and—surrounded by a sport, a coach, teammates, friends, and white America at large who all celebrated thinness—lost her body and became the running body, “something other than me. This hard, sharp thing.” With her, we watch “the running body as it floated around a curve, easily working through a three-mile warm-up. ‘That’s called zero body fat,’ the coach continued.” With her, we “saw the body that was once mine crossing an invisible line between dream and reality.” 

Pifer’s first (and longest) section follows her life from her childhood in Scott Depot, West Virginia, to her family’s move to Ohio when she was seven, to her coming-of-age and moving to college, where, once she “signed a contract to run at Ohio University, I adopted a sense that my body was no longer my property.” Ideas of property and belonging appear across The Running Body as Pifer travels between West Virginia, Ohio, Wyoming, Oregon, and New York. West Virginia, and specifically her great-grandparents’ farmhouse, surrounded by “slow-rolling hills” and a humidity so dense “its thickness holds the body,” is a touchstone. This land acts as a bell—like the bell of each lap of a track event—to turn a line into a spiral, where we always are both home and newcomers, making and finding meaning within a whirl of time.

During her first year at Ohio University, Pifer began to increase her mileage and decrease her food intake, earning faster times, praise from her team, and her transformation into “the running body.” As her training increases and eating decreases, as readers find in the second section, she suffers a series of fractures, including one of her pubic bone: “a fracture cutting right up the center of me.” These fractures ignite a series of events that take her out of competitive running and into another painful process of reckoning with who she/this body is now if they both are and are not “the running body.” These hard questions continue across the book’s four remaining sections, avoiding any easy answers.

As her memoir progresses, each section approaches this pivotal summer and its aftermath with different knowledges. In her second section, Pifer recounts her series of bone fractures by fracturing her narrative with the found texts of email exchanges and medical records; in her third section, this fracturing extends into her relationships and work, until she at last “started to try to tell the story of what I had done to my body.” In her fourth section, Pifer considers the erotics of exercise as she pursues recovery through gym workouts and heavy lifting; in her fifth section, she examines the role of patriarchy and capitalism in the relentless looking and objectifying of (women) athletes; and in her final section, she contemplates how magical thinking converges with faith and how to continue after both are lost.

For: grief is never linear. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross describes grief in her pivotal On Death and Dying, as paraphrased by Pifer, as “a cycle—made from not one circle, but many, concentric and overlapping, sticky and slippery.” So, too, could one describe the long-distance track races where Pifer excelled, where one race might hold 25 laps of the same four-hundred-meter oval and yet, when the running body lights up, locks into its practiced rhythm, and opens to the inevitable pain, these concentric loops become portal and vortex, an epiphanic experience, for “while the body is running the instants do not just stretch but come undone and blur to one long and flat instant of being.” A lifetime can bloom and implode in seconds. In a summer. 

The Running Body is an empowering narrative of reclaiming agency, body, and voice. At the same time, Pifer’s detailed accounts of what she did (not) eat and her resulting physical transformations offer an honesty and vulnerability both admirable and potentially triggering.

To be once the running body is to be always at least in part the running body. “I started to wonder if body trouble works the same as the muscle memory,” Pifer shares, as, “I wondered if it, like memory, was always there, willing and ready.” This reader would respond: Yes. My experience as an amateur longer-distance trail runner is quite different from Pifer’s experience as an accomplished collegiate track runner. Still, “there are places you can never come back from,” Pifer writes, and these places can be surprisingly eager to resurface. My troubles are now half a lifetime behind me; but as I re-read The Running Body, I found myself skipping snacks, appreciating again the electric pleasure when “my body ate itself for lunch” some days, and realizing, even now, even knowing all that I now do, like Pifer admits: 

I would give back all this failure, all this learning, to watch an arm raise a pistol toward the sky, to feel 
that buzz move itself up legs to chest, hear the shot, feel the running body take off, begin to make its 
meaning, step for step to the rhythm of hard, controlled breathing. I would unlearn every lesson 
failure taught me for a chance to vanish again into the running. 

The Running Body is an empowering narrative of reclaiming agency, body, and voice. At the same time, Pifer’s detailed accounts of what she did (not) eat and her resulting physical transformations offer an honesty and vulnerability both admirable and potentially triggering. She—importantly—is unflinching in showing how recovery, like grief, is never linear, and body trouble might always be waiting for an opportunity to re-emerge. Readers whose recovery is still more in-progress or more recent might benefit, then, from waiting to read this memoir. 

Such honesty and vulnerability propels The Running Body, resisting (even as it works within) the linear or expected recovery narrative genre. “What happened? You are asking. Be more clear, you are saying. But I have been wanting to show you what looking at this wound looks like to me,” Pifer writes, and her multifaceted approach is a more immersive study of these body troubles than many narratives. At times, her movements from sports psychology to capitalism, from patriarchy to entanglement, and more, might benefit from a slower pace; while this reader appreciated the mentions of white privilege in her later sections, they were shared in a more distanced tone that felt less integrated with her memoir’s compelling, immediate voice.

Readers follow Pifer in the circular process of making language within a wounding, often when she repeats the same word with small differences: “my mother and her body trouble, troubles, troubling,” becoming later, “my body trouble, troubles, troubling,” a trouble referenced earlier in how she “often had trouble with, or was troubled by, or have trouble with, or am troubled by the question of truth.” Time and language are nonlinear, like recovery and grief, like the process of living; all always hold the possibility of “sinking, over again, into the same bone-split.” Each physical circle of the track, each visual circle of the paragraph—its fullness counteracting the empty center of the running track—is also a spiral, as Kinsley Stocum’s intuitive book cover design demonstrates. Each lap is a repetition with a difference.

Throughout, The Running Body is urgent, immediate, and grounded in Pifer’s specific experiences with lyric intensity. “What happened? You are asking. Be more clear, you are saying. But I have been wanting to show you what looking at this wound looks like to me.” We look. We dwell in the wound, wounds, wounding—and we see, with Pifer, how making story can be both a wounding and a path toward what might come after:

I’ve heard people argue that analyzing beauty […] destroys it. Sometimes, I wonder that’s what I’m 
doing (to the running body, the running) with this writing. Sometimes, I think destroying is exactly 
what I should be doing. 

To consider destroying part of one’s story/self is to wonder: “Maybe, if I do look away, I will have to make myself more than who I was and what I did to my body. I will have to make myself free.” To heal might require a forgetting, an expansion, and what cannot yet be imagined. In The Running Body, Pifer takes readers to the edge of this healing, closing in a West Virginian field on another summer’s day, and we, like her, are transformed by the encounter.

Lucien Darjeun Meadows was born in Virginia and raised in West Virginia. Author of In the Hands of the River (Hub City Press, 2022) and former Still: The Journal contributor, he has received fellowships and awards from the Academy of American Poets, American Alliance of Museums, American Association of Geographers, and National Association for Interpretation. Lucien is currently an editor, volunteer ranger assistant, and ultramarathon runner among the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Ute lands of northern Colorado.

Read all of Still: The Journal'past reviews


Home     Archives     Fiction     Poetry     Creative  Nonfiction     Interview     
Featured Artist   Reviews     Multimedia    Masthead     Submit