Book Review: If You Feel Too Much

Jessi Emmert

Jessi Emmert

In 2006, Jamie Tworkowski wrote a short story that burst almost overnight into the non-profit To Write Love on Her Arms. The story was about helping a friend, Renee, through her struggle with addiction and depression, and the movement that evolved from it was one that saved the lives of countless people struggling with depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts.

“She hands me her last razor blade, tells me it is the one she used to cut her arm,” Tworkowski wrote in that original story. “i hold it carefully, thank her and know instantly that this moment, this gift, will stay with me. It hits me to wonder if this great feeling is what Christ knows when we surrender our broken hearts, when we trade death for life.” (The lower case “i” is his writing style utilized throughout the book.)

At 26 years old, Tworkowski found himself suddenly at the helm of a booming charity. He hadn’t planned for this to happen. At 22, he was hired by Hurley sportswear to work in surf sales — a dream job for someone his age. What he really longed to do, however, was write. So Tworkowski wrote the story that changed everything, and he wrote some other things too, and they all wound up together in his debut book, If You Feel Too Much. Many people expected him to write a memoir of his time so far with To Write Love On Her Arms, but that’s not what this book is. He explained in his introduction that he may one day write that memoir, but first, he needed to go back to the beginning. This book is a collection of emails, short stories, and blog entries that together create a picture of the journey that led him to Renee, and to the unexpected path that unfolded because of her.

“What follows is the story that changed everything for me. i remember thinking that ‘To Write Love on Her Arms’ was an odd title, but somehow felt appropriate. The phrase was a goal. At first it was a goal for one person. Today it is a goal for many.” This is how Tworkowski introduced the chapter of If You Feel Too Much that shares the story itself. The story follows Renee as she detoxes from a blur of drugs and alcohol, to a treatment center where she is rejected for being too great a risk, to a church that loves her and prays for her, and finally to rehab, where she hands over her last knife and begins her journey to recovery. 

“i have learned so much in one week with one brave girl,” he wrote. “She is alive now, in the patience and safety of rehab, covered in marks of madness but choosing to believe that God makes things new, that He meant hope and healing in the stars. She would ask you to remember.”

From there, Tworkowski touches on a bit of everything — his complicated relationship with his father, his desire to fall in love and his eventual acceptance that it’s OK if he doesn’t, a friend’s battle with cancer, and his chance meeting with a descendant of Ernest Hemingway. The passages were written from 2005 to 2014, and many of them touch on holidays, birthdays and current events. It’s almost like reading selected excerpts from a decade of diary entries. In one passage, Tworkowski wrote on the Aurora, Colorado, theater massacre in July 2012. He explained that the next day he found out that the shooter’s parents’ car had a TWLOHA bumper sticker on it. “We don’t know the story of that sticker on that car in San Diego,” He wrote. “But we know it sits before a home that must be filled with questions and shame and heartache.”

One of his best drabbles is formatted as a letter written to Valentine’s Day, in which he wrote, “i bought a lie that says i’m not alive if i’m not in love. i bought the lie that says if i love someone but then they stop loving me or they start loving someone else, then i must have no value or power or worth.” He concluded that the problem was that he chased love from girls rather than from God, and that this problem is not unique to him.

One of the best things about If You Feel Too Much is that Tworkowski does not write like a person trying to bestow wisdom on others. He writes like a human who is still very much struggling himself, and has decided to be vulnerable enough to share his struggles in hopes that others may realize they aren’t alone. “Valentines Day, i don’t hate you. i don’t even blame you. Perhaps you did not name yourself. Perhaps you are the product of hundreds of years, hundreds of thousands of broken people and a million God-shaped holes.”

All in all, the book is a tear-jerker. Tworkowski’s journeys of love and loss are heart wrenching and left me with a pile of used tissues and blurry eyes. His blog-style format is simultaneously the book’s greatest weakness but also greatest strength. The diary style format allows a raw look at each story that certainly wouldn’t have come through in a more traditional memoir format. However, there are places where the writing is disjointed and the phrasing odd. It is definitely obvious that it’s pieces of stories written over the course of several years, rather than one cohesive story.

If You Feel Too Much is full of quirks — the most irksome perhaps that the author refuses to capitalize the word “I.” He said in an interview with Paste that he wanted to unplug from his own story. The author’s effort to express humility is notable and pure, but I felt it somewhat contradicted the message of an organization that works so hard to affirm the worth and value of each individual.

Tworkowski made it clear that his goal was not to prove how impressive a writer he was, but rather to simply share a few stories from his heart, in hope that it will make others more aware of their own story. In this, he absolutely succeeded. “What if all those things that make up your story, the hard stuff and the good stuff, all the fears and dreams — what if all of it matters? i want to suggest the possibility that right now, today, tonight, you are living a story that is entirely unique, a story that is sacred and priceless, one where no one else can play your part.”

Jessi Emmert Hooley is the editorial assistant at Good News.


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