A Tragedy, a Symphony, a Love Story

This month, writer Suleika Jaouad revisits her second bone marrow transplant in the documentary 'American Symphony.'


A Story of Forced Renewal

After Suleika Jaouad's second bone marrow transplant, she found herself watching videos of bearded dragons shedding their skin on TikTok. She saw a metaphor in their molting process, as she too had undergone a transformation and vulnerability through her treatments. Ms. Jaouad, diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2011, is known for her memoir 'Between Two Kingdoms' that chronicles her first transplant and life afterwards. In the documentary 'American Symphony,' which premieres on Netflix, she shares the raw period of her cancer recurrence and second transplant along with her husband, musician Jon Batiste.

In 'American Symphony,' Ms. Jaouad and Mr. Batiste navigate the contrasts in their lives. While facing her cancer recurrence, Mr. Batiste receives 11 Grammy nominations. They married just before her transplant, and he continues to perform on 'The Late Show with Stephen Colbert' and compose a one-time performance at Carnegie Hall. Despite the unexpected turn of events, Ms. Jaouad embraces the experience of forced renewal and vulnerably shares her story.

The documentary, produced in collaboration with Barack and Michelle Obama's production company, Higher Ground, offers viewers a glimpse into Ms. Jaouad's journey and the challenges she faces. It captures the emotional roller coaster of her treatments, and the uncertainty of her future as she grapples with the ongoing treatment needed to outwit her cancer.

Rejecting Stereotypes

When approached to be part of the documentary, Ms. Jaouad had reservations about being portrayed as 'the sick girl' or a dramatic counterpoint to her husband's success. However, both Ms. Jaouad and the filmmaker Matthew Heineman were determined to present a different narrative. The film does not follow cliché illness tropes but instead focuses on Ms. Jaouad's resilience and her ability to find light in darkness.

In 'American Symphony,' viewers discover Ms. Jaouad's cancer diagnosis in the midst of a snowball fight, emphasizing her determination to maintain a sense of normalcy and not let illness define her. The film offers an authentic depiction of her experiences, including the crucial moment when she learns if her transplant was successful. Despite the challenges she faces, Ms. Jaouad remains optimistic and continues to inspire others with her story of resilience and healing.

Living in the Present

'American Symphony' serves as a reminder that the ending is not always neat and tidy. The film does not provide an update on Ms. Jaouad's health but highlights the uncertainty and fear of not existing in the future. Ms. Jaouad reflects on the suspension of time and the conscious decision to live in the present moment, regardless of what the future may hold.

With plans to write two more books and showcase her artwork at an art center, Ms. Jaouad is determined to embrace necessary optimism. She is choosing to make plans and envision a future, even though it may be uncertain. Through her resilience and ability to find beauty in the midst of darkness, Ms. Jaouad continues to inspire and provide insight to others facing their own challenges.