In Nicole Chung’s first memoir, All You Can Ever Know, published in 2018, Chung takes the reader with her on a journey in her adult life to find her birth parents. A Korean adoptee who was raised by white parents in rural southern Oregon, she reconciles a romanticized story of her what she’d always been told about how she came to be adopted by them with a hard but necessary truth about her biological parents. 

Her new memoir, A Living Remedy, published this spring, is as profound, personal and relatable a journey. This one is about losing both her (adoptive) parents within two years of each other. She loses her father to diabetes and kidney failure and her mother to cancer within two years of one another when both are in their sixties, and when she herself is amidst becoming an internationally recognized writer and being a new-ish parent to her own young daughters. 

In an interview with DC Public Library, she said when she began writing this memoir, it had been right after her father’s death, and it focused primarily on him and – through his illness and eventual passing – her family’s personal experience with our country’s health care system that prioritizes profit over people. Nine months after her father’s funeral, while she was writing this second memoir and was on tour for her first one, her mom was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer, toward the end of 2019. And then March 2020 happened, and the world fell out from under everyone. At that time, she said she more or less started writing the entire thing over again from the beginning. And very quickly into that process, her mother passed away, too.

You could take it at face value as a memoir about a close-to middle-aged daughter grappling with the death of both her parents in a short amount of time, and just that is worth the emotionally tough read. It’s also a sharp reveal of America’s cruel disregard for a large sector of its population, its allowing of the death of the uninsured who’ve worked hard their entire lives to fall through the cracks of debilitating and terminal (if left untreated) health conditions that prevent them from working yet being too young to qualify for Medicare or claim disability status. 

Although the official cause of death for her dad was listed as “end-stage renal failure, diabetes mellitus, hypertension,” Chung writes, “It is still hard for me to not think of my father’s death as a kind of negligent homicide, facilitated and sped by the state’s failure to fulfill its most basic responsibilities to him and others like him. With our broken safety net, our strained systems of care and support, the deep and corrosive inequalities we have yet to address, it’s no wonder that so many of us find ourselves alone, struggling to get the help we need when our loved ones are suffering.”

In speaking about how lack of access to health care eventually killed him, she delves deep into economic class issues as well. 

It’s hard to explain to most people the challenges of what it’s like to grow up without any kind of financial safety net at all, yet feel completely ill at ease – refusing to do so in fact – in identifying as, let’s say poor or low-income. It’s all relative. Chung lays this American class issue out very well through her own upbringing, her relationship with her rural working class surroundings and leaving them behind, and the unwavering love and support she has had from her parents. 

Chung doesn’t remember wanting for anything. She had devoted parents, she always had shelter, food, love and encouragement from them. She never went hungry or had to skip meals. Her parents didn’t use government support like food stamps. She got to go to an out of state east coast college and study liberal arts, on scholarship.

Yet her family had no financial safety net for most of her life. She says about when she began applying for colleges as a senior in high school, “I had sensed that we no longer lived paycheck to paycheck, as my mother had once told me, but emergency to emergency.” And this became overly prevalent when her both parents began experiencing health care emergencies, beginning when Chung was a young adult.

“Although many people identify as middle-of-the-road, middle-class, average Americans, there are differences between a working-class and a middle-class existence, and these differences can be far from subtle,” she says. “If you grew up as I did and happen to be very fortunate, as I was, your family might sacrifice much so that you can go to college. You’ll feel grateful for every subsequent opportunity you get, for the degrees and open doors and better paying jobs (if you can find them)…but in this country, unless you attain extraordinary wealth, you will likely be unable to help your loved ones in all the ways you hoped. You will learn to live with the specific, hollow guilt of those who leave hardship behind, yet are unable to bring anyone with them.”

Chung’s exploration of her relationship with her mother during both her mother’s life and her afterlife is heavily weaved in throughout the book. It is arguably a book about her relationship with her mother. She said to the audience at the DC Library reading that she knew the book was going to begin with her mother and end with her mother. This review’s lack of focus on that story shouldn’t detract from that, and I apologize if it does. 

It was difficult for me to land on how to review this because Chung takes on massive themes within a relatively slim 238-page book – racial issues, adoption, transracial adoption, class issues, a broken health care system, parent relations, becoming a caregiver, survivor guilt, grief and mental health. Each of these could stand alone as a focus for an entire book.

Chung’s enormous strength is in how skilled she effectively interconnects all these poignant and relatable and large-scale themes into the story of her own life experience in a way that brings the reader close to her and her family, as well as closer to themselves. In the best written memoirs I’ve read (and I’m a memoir-phile), the writers leave us learning as much about ourselves, our own ethics and our own life philosophies as we do about theirs. And Chung certainly does this in A Living Remedy.

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