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Book Review

Saved From Grizzly's Jaws, Survivor Keeps Reliving the Nightmare

THE BEAR'S EMBRACE A True Story of Survival; By Patricia Van Tighem; Pantheon; $23, 276 pages

November 02, 2001|THOMAS CURWEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fascination and abhorrence are strange but easy bedfellows. When the Fox network aired "When Animals Attack" in 1996, it earned 10th place in the local ratings sweep: Never underestimate the thrill of someone else's fear. We've seen it in "The Perfect Storm" and "Into Thin Air," and we live its terrible consequences in Patricia Van Tighem's harrowing memoir, "The Bear's Embrace."

She was a nurse, 24 years old, married three years, her husband in his third year of medical school in Calgary, when they decided to go on an overnight camping trip in the Canadian Rockies. The hike in was uneventful. They slept beside a lake. Night brought a dusting of snow; the morning was cold. On the way out they laughed and sang on the trail, when something hit them. First Trevor, then Patricia.

Bears, she tells us, disable their prey by crushing its jaw. She tried to climb a tree, but the grizzly followed. We later learn that it was defending the carcass of a bighorn sheep. Branches broke; she fell. She smelled the animal's breath, heard its slobbering and the crunching sound of bones in its mouth. "I don't want to die," she thought, and didn't. The bear retreated. Other campers found them and ran them to their cars and to a hospital.

That was 17 years ago, and the attack has taken place every day in her mind since then. How could it be otherwise? We live every day with certain faiths: that we can step outside our homes, for instance, and safely return. Van Tighem lived with that assumption until one day it was shattered, and the promise of her life disappeared.

She lay in the hospital with her head covered in bandages. Nurses came and went: monitoring vitals, checking grafts, suturing and administering medications. The left side of her face was nearly destroyed, eyelids gone, cheekbone missing, nose broken.

"Surgery number five," she writes of her ordeal. "The nurse has told me they will take a muscle from my back, the latissimus dorsi, and graft it to the back of my head. They will need to transplant blood vessels with the muscle. Finely sliced sections of skin from my buttocks will cover the muscle graft. It's a tricky surgery, and I may be in the OR for as long as twenty hours."

Van Tighem, who was once proud of her looks ("My teeth are well aligned.... I've been told that my blue eyes are lovely.... My nose would be better if it were smaller and straighter"), soon finds herself a stranger to herself. Her head is swollen, crisscrossed by suture lines. Her hair is cropped to the roots. Skin has been sewn back into place on her face, but more traumatic than the pain of the attack and the surgeries are the psychic injuries that follow.

At first there are the nightmares: She dreams of a bear performing surgery, people with arms sewn onto their heads. Then there's the everyday anxiety: She wonders if a window is strong enough to keep out a bear. And what slowly emerges is the riveting picture of what clinical manuals coolly refer to as post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Haunted by the happiness and trust she once knew, depressed at how distant those memories seem, Van Tighem tries to walk the tightrope between what is normal and what is realistic, what is expected and what is denial, and many times she falls.

A gulf widens between her and Trevor, whose injuries, though severe, were more easily repaired. They move to British Columbia. She gets pregnant. They move to New Zealand. They return home. She gets pregnant again, this time with twins; one is born with Down syndrome. She starts a support group for people with facial differences due to illness, disease or trauma. She has a nervous breakdown, and all the while there are the continuing surgeries, nightmares and fear.

Some Native Americans, she tells us toward the end of the book, believe that if you are attacked by a bear and survive, you will gain its wisdom and power. Van Tighem clearly wants us to believe this, but the reality is too stringent.

"The Bear's Embrace" is less important for the wisdom she seems to have gained than for the mirror it throws up to our reactions to life's unpredictability and to its victims. Van Tighem has written an important and bracing reminder of what it means to be vulnerable in a world that has little patience for vulnerability.

"People can tell me to stop dwelling on it, to get on with my life," she writes, "but I am getting on with my life. They can tell me the attack is in the past, but it isn't. I will deal with it every day for the rest of my life."

No accident is of course without consequence: no bear attack, no shark attack, no car wreck, divorce or death. Some survivors get back on their feet more quickly than others, but time is irrelevant. More important is our understanding of those who are afraid and the reasons they threaten us.

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