39 pages 1 hour read

Michele Harper

The Beauty in Breaking

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2020

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The Beauty in Breaking, published in 2020, is a memoir by emergency room physician Michele Harper. The book, which is her first, chronicles both her personal and professional life.

As an African American woman, Harper expresses her indignation toward American injustices, particularly systemic racism, that find their way into the healthcare system. In addition, Harper recollects harrowing moments of her childhood when she endured domestic abuse in her home, which helped inform her desire to work as a doctor and literally heal people from their wounds.

Ultimately, The Beauty in Breaking is a poignant, deeply personal story of a woman trying to make peace with her past while also fully experiencing and embracing the present. In sharing her story through this book, Harper reveals the human side of doctors, whom others often expect to achieve superhuman feats.


The Introduction opens with a quote by Hazrat Inayat Khan: “God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open” (xi). Harper then articulates her identity as a doctor and as a woman who has struggled as much as anyone. Harper likens the beauty of life to the Japanese practice of Kintsukuroi, in which artisans repair broken pottery by filling in the cracks with precious metals. She adds that she hopes to give readers an insider’s glimpse into emergency medicine.

Chapter 1: “Michele: A Wing and a Prayer” recollects Harper’s childhood, which was plagued by fear and abuse. Her father was often violent, and the police proved an ineffective force of protection for her mother, her brother and sister, and her. After a particularly frightening confrontation landed her brother in the hospital, she had an epiphany and began thinking about a future where she could help heal others by becoming a doctor.

Chapter 2: “Dr. Harper: The View from Here” examines the dissonance between expectation and reality in the days when Harper finished her medical residency as her marriage was ending. She addresses the challenges of moving to a new city for a new job as a recently divorced single woman.

Chapter 3: “Baby Doe: Born Perfect” reveals the heartbreaking story of a baby whom Harper was unable to resuscitate. She recalls the realizations that followed this experience.

Chapter 4: “Erik: Violent Behavior Alert” focuses on Harper’s experience treating a patient who had a history of violence and assault. Despite this, her foundational responsibilities as a doctor and healer required that she treat him with dignity.

Chapter 5: “Dominic: Body of Evidence” tells the story of a Black man who refused to be examined after police brought him to the hospital. Harper, who stood up for him and asserted his right to refuse treatment and examination, ruminates on how that experience was a microcosm of America.

Chapter 6: “Jeremiah, Cradle and All” continues the reflections of the previous chapter. Harper tells the story of a young man who died after a gunshot wound.

Chapter 7: “In the Name of Honor” focuses on a veteran and rape victim. Harper was moved by this patient’s choice to start again, picking up the pieces of her life after a harrowing, traumatic experience.

Chapter 8: “Joshua: Under Contract” tells the story of a cancer patient Harper knew who bravely refused to live his last days with harsh radiation treatments. Instead, he chose to let the disease run its course and live on his own terms.

Chapter 9: “Paul: Murda, Murda” recounts Harper’s experience in treating a man who was a murder suspect. She describes the intrinsic forgiveness that permeated this encounter.

Chapter 10: “Sitting with Olivia” pivots to the story of a woman suffering from the physical and emotional effects of stress during a time of personal crisis. Harper helped her try to balance inner and outer healing.

Chapter 11: “Jenny and Mary: What Falls Away” tells the stories of a young girl beaten unconscious by her own father and an elderly woman who lived just long enough to say her final goodbyes before passing away. These stories are a reminder that the medical profession is wrought with complex decision-making and at times heartbreak. In juxtaposing the two stories, Harper emphasizes that life is fragile regardless of age.

The Epilogue reminds readers that being broken is a necessary, even beautiful part of life, as Harper has learned, often through pain and grief. She emphasizes the importance of deliberately pursuing healing.

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