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The Summer of Her Baldness: A Cancer Improvisation (review)

From: Literature and Medicine
Volume 23, Number 2, Fall 2004
pp. 378-381 | 10.1353/lm.2005.0017

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Literature and Medicine 23.2 (2004) 378-381

Catherine Lord. The Summer of Her Baldness: A Cancer Improvisation. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004. 239 pp. Hardcover, $60.00. Paperback, $24.95.

Interesting, I thought, when I saw the author's last name on this breast cancer memoir, wondering if and how literary/political kinship with that most acclaimed chronicler of breast cancer might be enacted in this more recent work, final e notwithstanding. As I read, however, the question of kinship faded. Catherine Lord is too original a voice to be compared to anyone else, even though her political orientation shares many similarities with that of Audre Lorde and others whose narratives link illness to power, aesthetics, sexuality, friendship, and fear.

The word "improvisation" in the subtitle captures both the content and the form of the text. It indicates not only the unknown, unscripted, often surprising responses Lord (a professor of studio art) has once she is diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of fifty-one but also the format—a multifaceted, fragmented text that includes Lord's narration of what is happening, photographs of stark hospital examining rooms and medical equipment, Lord's online persona known as Her Baldness, and e-mail responses from her friends. The most intriguing aspect of this improvisation is Her Baldness, a witty, quick-tempered, passionate presence who "talk[s] big" and "talk[s] a lot" (5) to an e-mail listserv she uses to tell her "audience" (4) what she's experiencing throughout the months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Lord creates this persona in order to

put the telling in her voice, to warn people to stay away from pity. . . . She made up this list so that she could be strong and proud and brave and full of energy and motion in the middle of the desolation that is cyberspace, . . . to have a place in which to write. She made up this list to create the people for whom she wanted to write. She made up this list because she needed an audience in order to stay alive.

The recipients of this list—FOCL'SRB (friends of Catherine Lord's right breast)—do not know who else is reading her messages. What they might know is that Her Baldness adds and subtracts names depending on her mood and the actions (or inactions) of the recipients and that Her Baldness is a persona who contradicts herself time and again in what she refers to as this "involuntary performance piece" (5).

But Her Baldness is more than Lord's witty experiment in narration. She is also an enactment of the fluidity of identity, here the "conflicted relationship" (4) between the before-she-got-breast-cancer Catherine Lord and the postdiagnosis, bald, bolder, uncensored Catherine Lord. In fact, inhabiting the body of a bald woman takes up significant space in Her Baldness's ruminations, much like Audre Lorde's preoccupation with prosthesis. Lorde refuses to wear a prosthesis "because it feels like a lie more than merely a costume. . . . Prosthesis offers the empty comfort of 'Nobody will know the difference.' But it is that very difference which I wish to affirm, because I have lived it, and survived it, and wish to share that strength with other women." Her Baldness, who had a lumpectomy instead of a mastectomy like Lorde, refuses to wear a wig. In fact, as the subject heading in one of her messages announces ("WIG OUT"), she has "crossed off [her] list the possibility of a substitute, a fling, a replacement, a temporary solution that would imply a temporary problem" (43). Like the statement Audre Lorde made to the world by not wearing a prosthesis, Her Baldness does "not want to go gently back into the world of people who are afraid of looking into the eyes of someone whose chances of dying in the near future are better than theirs by a long shot. . . . Baldness becomes me, in a literal sort of way, a hell of a lot better than a pink ribbon" (44). She, like Lorde, does not want to "pass" (44).

Still, arriving at a place where "baldness becomes me" involves a long, often...