Writer and speaker on subjects of faith, doubt and conscience, and author of Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic

Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic

A medical mystery, a spiritual crisis, a riveting memoir

This taut yet lyrical memoir tells the author's experience with a baffling illness poised to take her sight, and gives us as well a deeply felt meditation on vulnerability and on what it means to lose the faith you had, and find something better.

One day at the end of 2009 during a routine eye exam that Gallagher nearly skipped, her doctor said "Darn." Her right optic nerve was inflamed, its cause unknown, a condition that, if left untreated, would cause her to lose her sight. And so began her departure from ordinary life and her travels in what she calls Oz, the land of the sick. Oz is “another country.” It looks like the world most of us inhabit, she tells us, except that “the furniture is slightly rearranged:” her friends can’t help her, her trusted doctors don’t know what’s wrong, and what faith she has doesn’t cover it. After a year of searching for a diagnosis and treatment, she arrives at the Mayo Clinic, and finds a whole town built around Oz. In the course of her journey, Gallagher meets inhuman doctors, the modern medical system in which knowledge takes 15 years to trickle down, and the world of the famous Mayo Clinic complete with its grand piano. With unerring candor, and no sentimentality whatsoever, Gallagher describes the unexpected twists and turns of the path she took through a medical mystery and an unfathomably changing life. In doing so, she gives us a singular, luminous map of vulnerability, dark landscapes and their immense gifts. “It’s the nature of things to be vulnerable,” Gallagher says. “The disorder is imagining we are not.”


“[Gallagher has] a poet’s ear for language and a novelist’s eye for essential detail.”

The Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic is the third book in a quartet of memoirs documenting Nora Gallagher's quest to live her faith in the modern world. In Things Seen and Unseen, Gallagher chronicled her experiences as a "tourist" amid Christianity. In Practicing Resurrection, she reflected upon her brother's death and considered entering the Episcopalian religious life. Now, Gallagher seems baptized by fire when a routine eye exam—one she almost cancels—propels her into a web of uncertainty about her failing eyesight.

The story is structured in three parts: "Drowning" reveals a serious inflammation of Gallagher's optic nerve. In "Limbo," she is suddenly at the mercy (or lack thereof) of doctors and a medical establishment unable to offer a concrete diagnosis. After a year of searching for answers, Gallagher and her husband finally make a pilgrimage from their home in Santa Barbara, Calif., to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where specialists offer insight and treatment options. In "Recalled to Life," Gallagher begins to process the ambiguity of her condition, but not before additional complications impede her progress.

Mystery, confusion and doubt infuse the unmitigated honesty of this memoir that maps the broad implications of disability. As she loses aspects of her sight, her ability to read and her faith, 60-year-old Gallagher examines her life and mines her liberal Christian beliefs. Church fails to provide comfort and a sense of connection, but words do, and Gallagher artfully employs them to write a beautifully rendered portrait of the frailty of the human condition.

—Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines
in Shelf Awareness, Starred Review

"Life-changing moments take place on seemingly ordinary days when we least expect it. That is one of the many lessons writer Gallagher (Practicing Resurrection, 2003) shares in this compelling memoir of the time she spent in what she calls the Land of Oz. Not the fantastical place that sprung from the imagination of L. Frank Baum but rather the place where the sick reside. When her doctor finds something amiss during a routine eye examination, she begins a long journey on a difficult yellow-brick road. Gallagher’s memoir is about many things: illness, mortality, faith and doubt, work, busyness, navigating through the crazy quilt that is the American health-care system, and, ultimately, about regaining one’s health and one’s place in the universe. Most of all, it is the memoir of a writer’s life (“Books were to my family’s house like beds and stoves, the most basic items, necessary for survival”) and the fear of losing one of the most precious tools of not only of the literary realm but of life itself: the gift of sight."


"Once a candidate for the Episcopal priesthood, [Gallagher] infuses her journey with a spiritual disorientation, beginning with the sudden discovery at age 60 of a dangerously inflamed optic nerve (a condition called optic neuritis) that could have resulted in blindness. The illness made her feel as if she “dropped out of the world [she] lived in” and was deposited in a kind of Oz, separated from healthy people by a glass wall, where she had instantly become a part of the suffering unfortunates who she had once prayed for and regarded with patronizing sympathy. Forced to scale back her busy life, Gallagher was also terrified that the strain of taking care of her would alienate her husband of 27 years. Doped up on prednisone (steroids) and sent from specialist to specialist, she finally got a referral to the famed Rochester, Minn., Mayo Clinic, where another round of tests and exams only added layers to a mystifying journey. Gallagher does not dole out easy answers in this somber, reflective work. But she finds the humble, bracing imperative to live in the present. 'Task: to be where I am.'"

Publishers Weekly

FAITH: Gallagher offers a nuanced discussion of faith—as she has in her prior memoirs—that will interest spiritually minded readers as well as anyone interested in living an introspective life.

FORMAT: Nora’s succinct, eloquent chapters are perfect for someone who is in medical crisis or watching a loved one in crisis, and in need of insight.

Nora Gallagher is the author of Changing Light, Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith and Practicing Resurrection: A Memoir of Work, Doubt, Discernment, and Moments of Grace. Her essays, book reviews, and journalism have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, DoubleTake, and Mother Jones, among other publications. She is also the editor of the award-winning Notes from the Field, a collection of literary essays about the outdoors. She sits on the advisory board of the Yale Divinity School.