- A Place to Put the Pain: Three Cancer Stories
“As I drove to the GYN office, X-rays in hand, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to survive this. I’m going to write poems about it.’“ She did. Chana Bloch’s recent book, The Past Keeps Changing, contains a numbered series of poems entitled “In the Land of the Body” that allow us to enter the private space of fear and the interior dialogues of the newly diagnosed cancer patient. 1 The poems accomplish what is the most essential work of autobiographical writing: they honor and preserve the complexity of the experience. They don’t allow us readily to fall into conventional attitudes of pity or horror, or even to think in the usual terms about the “courage of the victim.”
As a culture, we conspire to manufacture ready-made responses to illness, loss, and the threat of death that shield us from the arduous emotional and spiritual work those experiences ask of us. If we avail ourselves of prefabricated pieties, we lose the opportunity crisis provides to become more conscious, more human, more compassionate, more humble in the knowledge that even this catastrophe may not simply be labeled and deplored. There is a gift in the dark mine of pain and fear for those who will carry in their picks and find it.
Many have. The literature of illness has burgeoned in the past several decades, particularly with biographies and autobiographies focused on the experience of illness that chronicle something like a spiritual journey. Anne Hunsaker Hawkins calls these accounts pathography in Reconstructing Illness, which traces patterns of myth and processes of mythmaking at work in stories of sickness and examines the ways we borrow from the archetypes of journey, battle, death, and rebirth, to describe and understand the experience of illness and endow it with meaning. 2 The particular ways in which health care has become politicized and unprecedentedly complicated since World War II have modified cultural sensitivities about what is private and what is public; the declaration of the Viet Nam generation that “the personal is political” has extended not only to the social ills that relate directly to [End Page 87] militarism and warfare, but also to a recognition of illness as a social event. Library shelves are now crowded with stories of celebrities’ illnesses: Betty Rollin’s First, You Cry, Jill Ireland’s Life Wish, and Gilda Radner’s It’s Always Something are three commendable examples of cancer stories that bring a private experience of pain to public attention in a way that affirms that deep level of human community of which illness reminds us. 3 A cynic might point out that in some ways illness, like so many other aspects of our lives, has become a media event. But one might also regard stories like these, from individuals who understand that the eye of the public is already on them, as bespeaking a genuine ethic of public service—a willingness to expose one’s own pain to affirm that we are together in our mortality, and that together we construct the rituals, seek the cures, find the means of solace, and fight the indignities of sickness and death. Whatever the motives, the fact remains that public personalities, established writers, and private individuals heretofore unpublished continue to add literary testimony to the social, psychological, and spiritual complexity of illness that raises fascinating and urgent medical and literary questions. 4
To survey the landscape of the literature of illness produced in the past four to five decades certainly leads to speculation about the variables of literary genre in relation to the experience of illness. Although autobiography has remained the main form of sickness story, much experimentation with other literary forms as ways of beaming the pain of illness through the prism of art has broken open many new questions about what may and can be told. Widespread awareness of cancer with its mysterious etiology and its link to environmental toxicities that threaten us all, the aids crisis, and the ways new medical technology has complicated and multiplied ethical dilemmas in medicine have all contributed to some experimentation with the...