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 ways we account for and recount the experience of illness. Susan Sontag’s repeated confrontation of the issue of metaphor in illness, first in Illness as Metaphor and later in aids and Its Metaphors, gives some indication of the way literary and ethical choices converge in finding an appropriate discourse for disease. 5 Her 1991 story, The Way We Live Now, consisting entirely of a network of fragmentary conversations among the friends of a person with aids in which the disease was never named, is a striking example of such experiments in representation. 6 Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, which combines journal entries written during treatment, retrospective reflection on her treatment, and an essay on the politics of breast cancer, is another. 7 Novels about illness are only a step away from pathographies, where, moved into the wide waters of fiction, stories of illness may take on a multidimensionality [End Page 88] impossible to even the most artful nonfiction. Anne Lamott’s Hard Laughter, Ellen Gilchrist’s The Anna Papers, and Robert Ferro’s Second Son are all delicately and surprisingly modulated stories of illness in which family contexts and family adaptations come into sharp focus in ways unlikely in autobiography. 8 Several plays about aids—Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, William Hoffman’s As Is, and most recently Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, for example—have awakened a new interest in theater as an appropriate vehicle for understanding the social dimensions of illness. 9 The intensely private nature of pain has been the focus of a great deal of poetry, now available in collections like Jon Mukand’s Sutured Words and Leatrice Lifshitz’s Her Soul Beneath the Bone, in both of which the problem of finding a language for pain is foregrounded. 10
To look over the enlarging body of literary treatments of illness is also to recognize gender as one significant factor shaping such accounts. When, and to what extent, for instance, does cancer become a “women’s issue”? The most obvious answer to that is to point to treatments of cancers that affect women’s bodies in particular—breast cancer, ovarian cancer, uterine cancer. But in a larger sense, gender is always a factor in the experience and story of disease, because the power relations involved in medical situations—the relative authority of doctor and patient, the vulnerabilities of physical exposure, and the economics of treatment—all highlight the effects of cultural myths about male and female behavior. Cancer is by no means in itself a “women’s issue,” but certainly women with cancer face a particular constellation of problems, obstacles, and pat attitudes because they are women—and these become part of their experience and their story.
I was grateful recently for the opportunity to talk with three women whose work on the experience of cancer offers useful case studies of some of the processes by which an experience of illness becomes literature. 11 Colleagues and friends who have published in other areas, they all find themselves in new territory with this work, confronting themselves and their authority as writers in new ways. Two of them are still finishing works; one has published a series of cancer poems and is currently writing a number of new poems from the vantage point of a family member who is caretaker and witness to another’s pain. Each of them writes in a different genre, each with her quite individual purposes, and finds in writing ways of rising to meet not only the spectre of disease and possible death but the unconfronted life issues that illness brought in its wake. In poetry, fiction, and drama respectively they have mapped trails into “the land of the body” and the world of the cancer patient that serve to open up a little of that [End Page 89] mysterious territory to the rest of us, many of whom may someday follow them there.
For all of these women, the project of finding an appropriate medium and voice to tell their stories involved decisions about exposure of private life, avoidance of sentimentality and cliché, and discernment of the nature of medical understanding. For each of them, womanhood was in some way at issue. I came to them with immense respect for the energy with which they have taken on life-threatening situations and used them as avenues of learning and grace. I asked them to recall the specific decisions, moral and literary, they made in the process of working in their respective genres. The conversations that ensued seem to me to offer powerful examples of how illness brings up a particular “wrestle with words and meanings.” 12 They testified eloquently to the courage it takes not only to meet the physical and psychological challenge of cancer, but to reclaim authority over one’s own life and become something more than a victim to a misfortune that almost inevitably raises the bitter question, Why me? From one perspective my accounts of these three interviews are “profiles in courage,” but it may be more germane to our present purpose of understanding the role of the imagination in healing to think of them as profiles in creativity.
Certainly there is courage in Chana Bloch’s cancer poems—in the “rising to meet it” and in the moment of resolve to “survive this and write poems about it” (Chana’s own phrases). But more impressive, in a way, than the evident courage of a woman facing her own painful and uncertain future is the quality of attention given to the nuanced life of the body thrown into sudden relief by pain and made suddenly strange by the known presence of “an enemy within the walls.” Like poetry, illness calls us to attention. Suddenly to bring one’s consciousness to the interior life of the body, so relatively unknown and ignored much of the time, is to confront one of the deepest mysteries of being human. In the last poem from “In The Land of the Body” the poet writes,
That clumsy pushing and wheeling inside my chest, that ferocious upturn— I give myself to it. Why else be in a body?(p. 74) [End Page 90]
Thus she follows and names the movements of the pain, and thus consents to go where the body takes her—and through her poems, to take us with her for a part of that dark journey.
The curiosity that led me to these interviews was driven partly by an abiding interest in the work of autobiography, the uses to which it is put, and its therapeutic potential; partly by the experience of watching a friend develop cancer and die, conversing with her about the sustained paradox of trying both to choose life and prepare for death; and partly by the knowledge that in our generation about one in three of us will have some encounter with cancer. We learn from those who have been there and found, as Flannery O’Connor put it, that “sickness is a place” one goes away to, a place apart from the accustomed venues of ordinary life, and one in which our journeys and sojourns may be rich with surprise. So Chana writes of the doctor coming in his white mask to join her in a journey, and realizes as the moment is upon her, “I left everything to come here. / They took away my watch. / The children / grew smaller, disappeared.” Moments later: “We start off together on the long journey. / My sack of flesh closes around him. / My belly / swallows his hands” (p. 72). The experience of going away, leaving behind those who would give anything to go with us, or to prevent that going, of finding oneself suddenly joined with a stranger in a life-and-death enterprise, is the first of the surprises: sometimes oddly liberating even in its terror.
Chana composed her poems over a period that spans the time from diagnosis to recovery. The first poem was scribbled in the car immediately after learning she would have to have surgery. That was her moment of resolve to survive and write about it; that resolve, she said, “would be like a thread I could hold on to.” She continued to write her way through the experience, jotting notes during clinical visits, collecting unfamiliar words, pressing the doctor for explanations she later translated into her own idiom. Thus, an ordinary clinical conversation about her X-rays is recalled as a confrontation with a self completely estranged and an other whose authority merges the roles of fortune-teller, scientist, and teacher.
He shows me my body translated into swirls of light on a fluorescent screen.
This is the thorax with its curving fingers of rib, its thick ring of fat. These [End Page 91] are the soft blind organs, huddled, the lungs filled with black air. This is a transverse section of the spinal column: a white eye, a dark pupil.
I’m waiting for him to read my fortune: values on a scale, relative shades of gray.
Inside me everything’s in color, glossy, opaque. A lump of pain in a hidden pocket.
His voice segmented, exact, he talks to the picture, takes a crayon, draws a burst of rays around the star he’s discovered
but hasn’t named(p. 68)
Subtly here, more overtly in other poems, the sexual dimension of the intimate encounter between a powerful male doctor and a female patient, disempowered, or at least out of her element, is suggested: “He shows me my body.” As a lover does, the doctor reveals to a woman her own body in a way she could not know it alone.
Subtly, too, the poem recalls the famous consultation with Madame Sosostris, “famous clairvoyante” in The Waste Land, a quasi-comic figure who dispenses reassurance or satisfies the curiosity of the gullible by playing out a ritual whose potency lies in the need that drives the seeker to believe that what she can tell him will save him. The doctor’s “This is the thorax . . . / These are the soft, blind organs . . . / This is a transverse section” picks up the portentious rhythms of the clairvoyante’s words: “Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks / . . . Here is the man with three staves . . . / Here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card, / Which is blank, is something he carries on his back, / Which I am forbidden to see.” 13 To wait for the fortune teller’s prediction is to wrestle with indecision about what to allow oneself—or force oneself [End Page 92] —to believe. Like the teller who utters the names of the cards, the doctor is performing a rite of initiation, pointing to the illuminated interior of the patient’s body, identifying, mapping, verifying his diagnosis and thus his authority to enter this body, no longer a sacred space cloistered in protective flesh, but exposed, reduced and estranged, on an impersonal screen.
This poem, the second in the series, was composed of notes taken as Chana looked at that screen and followed the doctor’s moving crayon along the map of her own undiscovered country. Some of the lines are lifted directly from her notes—”found poetry,” as some poets call it—disclosed in the most ordinary or here, clinical, language. She drew pictures, diagrams, that resembled what she saw: a white eye with a dark pupil, organs in imagined colors, a “picket of ribs.” The drawings gave her words. In an interview she explained that a later poem began in the doctor’s answer to her question, “What did the tumor look like?” Lobular, membranous, hemorrhagic. She wrote a poem about that tumor that “originally had all those words in it,” but later she took them out; they “limited the poem too much.” The doctor sat with her for an hour some months after the operation, reviewing her X-rays. “Some of the words in these poems are his words,” she said. The poems grew out of the attempt to speak a foreign language in a foreign land, finding even familiar objects and expressions detached from their accustomed meanings. Chana entered this conversation with voracious curiosity, informed, she said, by trauma and relief. There was a good chance they had gotten it all. Diminishment of fear makes room for the larger questions: What is this experience about? What is it calling forth? How does it change the way I may see my own life?
Subsequent poems were drawn from the long, entangled web of words spun around the event of her illness: the original disclosure, which began with “What’s wrong with my ovaries?” and ended with “Are you telling me I have a metastasized cancer?”; people calling to urge her to get a second opinion; the prose descriptions, recollections, reflections in her journal, from which words emerged that became the poetry; as well as conversations with other poets who played midwife to her poems. One poem began at a poetry reading she attended after leaving the hospital. A poet had made up a poem from parts of sentences—an imitation of inner dialogue that rang true. The form, she said, seemed a good one for capturing the feeling of not knowing—the incompleteness and open-endedness of the suspended state in which one is left even in recovery, where it is impossible ever again to be completely free of the suspicion of recurrence, or to be unaware of the [End Page 93] vulnerability of the body. “Looks like.” “No way to.” “The size of.” “There have been cases.” These phrases evoke the situation of illness and uncertainty. In another of the poems she writes the line “Everyone lives under a cloud,” recalled from a conversation with another recovered cancer patient (p. 73).
The last cancer poem, though not the last in the printed series, recalls the pain of telling her children, seeing through the layers of their self-protective reactions to where they curled around their own fear. This, for a mother, has to be one of the hardest parts, worse than her own fear, worse than her own pain. She watches her child drawing, as he asks, “Are you going to die?” “I see,” she writes, “how careful he is / to keep the colors from spilling / over the lines” (p. 70). In that childish act of caution it is hard not to see an impulse we all must recognize to bargain with the powers that control life and death: if we’re good enough, obedient enough, careful enough, will you keep us safe? Lynn Sharon Schwarz wrote a story a few years back about watching her father die, and watching her mother’s response. “Only right now,” she writes, “she thinks, hopes, yearns to believe that if she obeys all the rules in life God will look down on her with favor and let my father live.” 14
Chana’s own way of “coloring inside the lines” was to become very practical. In the days before the operation, she recalls, “I figured out what needed to be done. I went shopping with the boys for winter clothes. I wrote lists of the food we always buy.” Beneath that momentum of activity she remembers the undertow: “I felt scared. I was afraid to feel the elation or even hope that rose up in me when the doctor said it might be fibroids—that even if it was a cancer ‘I can get it. I can feel it with my hand.’“ Her instructions to herself bore the full weight of the paradox into which she was thrust by the fact of fear in a time when she particularly needed to trust: “You have to get yourself into a state of complete calm.” “I knew I had to, so I did,” she says, her matter-of-factness laced with a certain quizzical recognition of the sleight of mind it takes to trick ourselves out of fear.
The last poem was written at a writer’s colony, eighteen months after the operation when she was “feeling she was totally out of it,” feeling, as she writes in one line, that she has “died and come back again” (p. 74). But that, she knows, is also a stage in an ongoing dialogue with disease and death. In our interview, she recalls, wryly, her doctor’s words at the final post-op consultation, meant to reassure her of the slight chance that this particular cancer would recur: “Your chances of getting another kind of cancer are better.” One does not [End Page 94] come to complete closure on this illness, which may be one reason poetry is an appropriate kind of record. Keats defined the genius of the poet in terms of his “negative capability”—the ability to sustain paradox without straining after resolution. That is how we get closest to the truth that we are all living and dying simultaneously and that in all our “little deaths” there is some discovery of life that is only glimpsed through death’s door.
The words cured and curable are always contingent, as Mary LaMattery acknowledged to me, “I had Hodgkins disease. It’s a curable form of cancer.” Knowing that one’s cancer is curable provides relief, but not reprieve from the confrontation with mortality and the “revaluation of all we have been and done” that serious illness provokes. For Mary it didn’t much modify the initial trauma of finding a lump above the collarbone one morning that appeared “literally overnight” or subsequently several more large tumors, “one between the lungs.” Mary’s novel in progress, like so many stories of illness, has a large subplot; illness forced her to come to terms with herself and her primary relationships in ways that link changes in those aspects of her life inextricably to the course of illness and healing. 15
“I couldn’t write about the one without writing about the other,” she now realizes. No more tolerant than others in her position of those who would too glibly assign moral or symbolic significance to physical illness, she has found it useful in her own retrospections to consider how her cancer might have been linked to what she now sees as ongoing self-betrayal, co-dependency, and denial. The cancer ultimately restored to her a sense of her own powers of self-determination. “At the end of my treatments I left the destructive relationship I was in,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘If I can go through cancer I can deal with this relationship.’ I had all this power because I knew what the darkest thing was. I wanted an honest life.” Within a year after the end of treatments she had reclaimed an independent life, found a full-time teaching assignment, and heard from her friends that she looked “younger and happier” than for some time before her illness.
Mary didn’t write about the experience of cancer until after she was pronounced cured. “In the midst of it all,” she says,
I didn’t have the detachment. I was completely immersed in the experience. People gave me books on Eastern meditation techniques, healing practices, attitudinal change, but I trusted my own response, which was often to kick and scream. I would throw up before the [End Page 95] treatments as a way to prepare myself. There was one exceptional nurse who understood my strategies, the one who gave me weekly injections that made me sick. She was a remarkable woman. She did this terrible thing to people all the time, and with tremendous compassion. She absolutely believed in what she was doing; that’s what allowed her to do such a nasty thing with such kindness.
One anecdote about the nurse who managed to soften the nightmare is particularly telling. Mary remembers a mirror in the treatment room. One particularly bad day, before the nurse picked up the needle, Mary looked at the mirror and suddenly wanted to walk over to it and scream. It seemed suddenly the place to take her rage. In a moment of desperate candor she told the nurse she wanted to do that before the injection. Her partner, who had accompanied her, rolled his eyes, embarrassed, impatient, and uncomprehending. The nurse responded immediately, with empathy. Taking her seriously she answered, “Go ahead. And let the whole building hear you if you want.”
It wasn’t until two years after treatments were completed that she felt enough “security and safety” to revisit her illness and its implications. She wrote a first draft of a novel that allowed her to see the convergence between the cancer and “something else in my life that was killing me.” “However literally you may take this kind of equation,” she reflects, “writing about my cancer led me to see it as something I had in some sense ‘created.’ It’s hard, really, to see anything big that happens to you as accidental.” But the draft was “almost unreadable.” It was inarticulate, a first attempt to give shape to what was still inchoate and disturbingly unresolved. It began to define the experience for her, but failed to communicate it: “In the first version all I could do was share my confusion. People who read that draft could hardly bear it—didn’t know what I expected of them as readers, how to respond to something that seemed more like a challenge or a plea than a story.”
The breakthrough into story, which Mary marks as the beginning of a whole new stage of healing, came when “finally this character appeared.” He was, as she puts it, “my objective correlative.” The character was Dr. Li Wah, an immigrant Chinese medical practitioner, exiled during the Cultural Revolution. He takes a language course from the “Mary character,” the teacher who finds herself a cancer patient. By virtue of highly developed empathy and intuition honed in a culture where those skills are taken seriously as a part of medical training, he [End Page 96] becomes her healer and teacher. He first makes his appearance when the young teacher is losing her hair. “Just that morning, for the first time, a handful of hair had come out in her brush.”
The shock of this further stage of loss was brand new. She was trying to ignore it. Li Wah comes to the young woman for a tutorial session. (The woman is nameless in the story, which Mary regards as significant: “She is me and she’s not me. I couldn’t give her a name.”) The first thing he says to her is “You are angry.” The woman is barely aware that she is. This is the first of his gifts to her—to speak forth what she has buried. “I needed someone who could break through this woman’s inarticulateness,” Mary recalls. They develop an equal and opposite authority relationship; they equip one another to survive. He notices her entrapment. She notices his quality of “innocence and clarity.” “When someone has recovered from flu or some other draining illness they have that look,” Mary explains. Then she adds, “the woman thinks of him as looking like someone who’s committed an unspeakable crime and dealt with it.” He, too, has known illness and recovery.
This connection between illness and guilt—and correspondingly between recovery and absolution—is another issue that writing has helped Mary articulate more clearly for herself. She remembers feelings of irrational guilt as a cancer patient that plummeted her into deep morbidity. “The guilt I felt had accumulated throughout an overly docile Catholic childhood,” she muses. “My first thought when I was told I had cancer was, ‘What did I do? I’m responsible for this.’“ The “up side” of the guilt overload was that writing became so explicitly an instrument of healing. “I’m still fighting—and writing—my way out of the guilt” she says. The guilt issue arises in curious and unexpected ways in the course of her novel. In the scene where the woman tells her mother she has cancer, she is aware of belying a certain true but “obscene” feeling of excitement about it—an odd sense of exhilaration that is inadmissable in conversation and barely capable of being brought to consciousness. Later, driving home through a drought-ridden landscape, the experience comes to her again in a moment of identification with the parched earth spread before her:
[S]he had lost the odd excitement and almost forgotten she had ever felt it. But here it was again, as if some transformation were at hand, as if these hills were moved to show a resiliency hills aren’t thought to have, as if all of this drying up and shearing down were preparation, not simply loss. [End Page 97]
Every chapter in the novel brings greater clarity and freedom from the imprisoning ways in which she saw her illness and, before that, her life. Indeed, to write fiction is to consider and create models—to explore human possibilities. A character may speak what the writer herself may not, and so provide an “other” who becomes a counsellor and who may finally be recognized as an aspect of oneself. When that happens one may have the tremendously empowering experience of reclaiming an authority one may never before have realized. “You look for people who have been through it,” Mary says in our interview. “You want to see what survival, recovery, and self-love look like. You need someone to help dispel the guilt, move it into another frame.” Release from that irrational guilt also provided a key to releasing herself from a similar self-blame for the hurtful relationship she was in. Li Wah became the teacher who showed her how to claim her own power and freedom.
The substance of Li Wah’s teaching, much of it counsel about how to achieve inner peace and freedom, emerged in the course of writing the novel. It was not drawn from the plethora of material available on Eastern medicine or holistic healing, but seems to Mary to have arisen as a function of “getting to know” this character and letting him speak. Mary’s writing coach speculated that the old Chinese man represented the good side of the partner Mary had left. Mary thinks he may represent a part of herself that could only speak through this kind of triangulation. Both, she acknowledges, could be true. When he speaks, he speaks cryptically, epigrammatically, in short imperatives.
But before he speaks, she has to seek him out. He stops coming for language instruction for awhile—just suddenly disappears from her life. Then she finds him on the street one day, having lost his job at the hospital where he had taken on a menial position because he was dispensing his own, unofficial medicine in the form of a “list” provided to patients for their healing. He promises to bring it to her. The list is one of the things, Mary explains, that “just came,” verbatim, in the course of writing the novel. It is, she explains, “not a list of herbs, not a list of prayers—it’s more like a poem of things to do. Instructions.” It has the ring of wisdom literature—something between proverbs and the precepts of Lao Tse: this do and you will have eternal life, or, this do and you will have your own life back. The commands are strangely worded, strangely compelling in their cryptic simplicity:
Face the heart. [End Page 98]
Feel the wind.
Eat with the poorest child.
Sleep kindly to yourself.
The list comes to the woman as a reward for her seeking. Mary reflects with remarkable candor, “I think Li Wah went away because I couldn’t allow this woman to let herself simply be loved and understood. I had to make him abandon her. Maybe I’ll change that later, I don’t know. It’s hard to let such a gift come freely. But that’s part of the lesson of healing. Sometimes it’s just a gift.”
Li Wah is not a simple character. His relationship to the young woman character and to Mary is complex. Nor is it at all a simple thing to “tell the story.” It comes, in that mysterious way so many writers describe, partly by plan, partly as gift, often by surprise. Still in the process of finishing the novel, Mary continues to find that the writing is scary at moments. To discover Li Wah and to “let herself be in a room with him” was to submit to “letting the healing happen”—letting herself be spoken to in a way that compelled awareness and obedience. Asked if he was a Chinese doctor because of some previous interest in or attraction to Chinese medicine, Mary replies, “No. In fact at the time I was ill I just thought that stuff was silly.”
The novel itself has provided Mary with questions, medical, psychological, and spiritual, that have opened up large territories of self-exploration. “The more I work on this novel, which began as the story of my experience with cancer, the more it becomes about other things. The cancer has become a trope for everything else in my life: teaching, parenting, personal relationship. It has become a vehicle for understanding my life, and I’m grateful for that.” Aware how easy it is to moralize, sentimentalize, or sensationalize after the fact, Mary believes that a novel is, at least for her, the most reliable way to get at the truth of the experience. The indirection of working through characters who take on a life of their own makes one both agent and recipient of the story, engaging rational, conscious mind, memory, imagination, and the dreaming self in complex dialogue. What comes has that quality of surprise that is the hallmark of insight, and a heightened awareness of how it is one may say, “Only in darkness the light.”
The darkness is different for the onlookers and caretakers. Dione Sobin’s recently completed play, Zoe (the Greek word for life), comes out of her close involvement with her mother’s breast cancer, an [End Page 99] experience that seems to her in its way as life-changing as that of illness itself. 16 To write a play is literally to play out or act out the possibilities inherent in the life situation that constitutes the core of the play. Sobin’s play introduces several lines of conflict focused on the diagnosis and treatment of cancer in a woman surrounded by daughter, husband, and son-in-law—on all of whom her disease impinges in painful and complicated ways. Predictably there is power conflict over diagnosis and treatment. The husband, himself a doctor, wrestles with whether to call his colleague to task for what looks like a sloppy reading of an X-ray or (as he does decide) to forego the conflict and put his energy into supporting his wife. In the play, the daughter, an amateur filmmaker, attempts to come to terms with her relationship with her mother, whose illness has made that relationship both more precious and more mysterious, by writing a screenplay that plays at the edges of her mother’s mortality and her own fear. The daughter’s film is a reconstruction of a fantasy scene where she heroically saves her mother from being run over. The son-in-law is sympathetic, but rational, detached, and as his young wife becomes more absorbed in her mother’s illness, a little resentful of her shifting her center of gravity back to her parents. As each of the characters becomes involved, the question arises, Whose disease is it, anyway?
The film scene, Dione thinks, is the heart of the play. After daughter and mother view the film, they fall into conversation about the daughter’s anguished desire to play savior to her mother. In response to the daughter’s near hysteria, the mother seeks to bring her back to grips with human limitation with an almost harsh insistence on the hard realities. “No one can give her life for another,” she insists. “You can’t make a trade. . . . You cannot save me from the car crash, you cannot save me from growing old, you cannot save my body from itself [puts her hand on her breast]. And you cannot save me from dying. . . . We can only occupy our own allotted space, only know our own life and our own death.”
“I don’t usually write about stuff like this,” Dione laughs, as she recalls her decision to revisit the early period of her mother’s cancer. It took months to get from a seminal paragraph, scribbled as an exercise in a writing group, to a desire and decision to write about her mother’s illness. “I didn’t feel comfortable telling the story, large as it loomed in my life,” she says. “I didn’t have anything to say.” But what there was to say kept haunting her. “I had to talk about it constantly,” she recalls.
Talking about it is something she does well; the story follows certain predictable lines, mapped by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and others: [End Page 100] shock, outrage, denial, bargaining. 17 In the course of the narrative, what comes through is the strength of Dione’s bond with her mother and the fact, long recognized by medical sociologists, that illness afflicts family systems, not just individual bodies and lives. It changes relationships and reconfigures them in profound and often permanent ways.
Dione was in her first year of graduate school when her mother got sick. Her father called to tell her that her mother’s mammogram had revealed a spiculated lump. It was, he said, “98 percent certain” that she had breast cancer. Dione’s immediate response was to ask, “What about the 2 percent?” Her mother and father, on extension lines of their home, argued out their respective answers with each other, placing her in the familiar role of “voyeur” to conversations performed in front of her as ideal audience and sounding board. Recalling this conversation, Dione tries, thinking perhaps she will misrepresent it, to convey something of the extraordinary intimacy she has always had as only daughter with two expressive and confiding parents. In talking with Dione, I began to see how it is that her mother’s experience compelled her to write with something like the same urgency the other women expressed about their own illnesses.
She describes her family as “a very strong Greek matriarchy.” Her grandmother, another strong presence in the family, chose her own way of responding to the crisis: she “went into complete denial.” The three women struggled separately and together with their different forms and layers of anger, resistance, need, and fear. Dione’s husband found himself bewilderingly outside of this triumvirate of women and unable to help in the way he wanted when he arrived at the parental home to be with them.
The story, simply told, has its own dramatic value:
After my mother came home from the first operation she didn’t cry. My father said with some admiration that she was being “real tough.” What I saw was false joviality, I followed her to the bath-room where we both cried. There was nothing I could do.
After that, back up north and going on with my daily life, I thought about her incessantly. I’d have fantasies in the car on the freeway, often about helping in some heroic way. Was I relieving my guilt? It was clearly serving some purpose for me to put myself in her shoes. I seemed to want to reach as far inside her experience as my empathetic imagination would allow me to.
The doctor’s response came back: there was a good chance it was cancer, there might be node involvement, she needed surgery [End Page 101] soon. When she went into surgery, my mother was still focusing on the 2 percent. She told us if she had cancer she wanted to be allowed to sleep through. Otherwise she wanted to be awakened as soon as possible. The waiting room was like a hunting lodge. My grandmother was finally sobbing.
The three-hour operation seemed to take forever. The surgeon came out at the one moment I’d chosen to go to the bathroom to tell us that it was cancer, that he’d taken seventeen nodes, all seemed clear, there would be no full reading until a day or two later. When the results came in, we were assured there had been no node involvement; the cancer had not spread; it seemed to confirm that they’d gotten it all. It’s been two years since radiation started, and she’s still doing okay. But you’re never quite so sure of health again.
Storytelling is clearly one of Dione’s gifts. So why a play? I asked her. She answers that her mother, and the whole family, handled the experience by talking about it, every day. This allowed them to contain the process of experiencing her mother’s cancer within the family rather than choosing to seek therapy, which didn’t interest Dione’s mother. The constant dialogue among family members took a form that itself proposed a play, rather than a story. Dione’s hesitation to fictionalize her mother’s story—to create a character for her mother—comes from a feeling that the fiction would be a violation of her mother’s experience. That possibility continues to make Dione somewhat uncomfortable, but as she explains it, “the events of those months seemed to want to be a play.” The story as she tells it has a certain simplicity and lucidity; the play as she wrote it allows much more range for murkiness, confusion, emotional ambiguity; it contextualizes the event of cancer in a thick weave of relationships with all their preexisting density and tension. “When I wrote about it,” she adds, “I felt it, saw it, tasted it. I saw scenes in my head. I worked from visual recollection of scenes and a feeling sense of the atmosphere—in the doctor’s office, for instance, or the hospital waiting room—to dialogue that came back in scraps of conversation.”
I wondered, were there revelatory moments in the process? Discoveries generated by the writing itself? “I worked out most of the emotional stuff before writing,” she says, explaining that she couldn’t engage in the simple work of composition until she had achieved some measure of detachment. “The best parts seem to me those where I felt I had most artistic control, least residual feeling of trauma. But,” she [End Page 102] goes on, “this was a huge rite of passage. I wondered often, ‘Am I writing for my mother or me?’ For me, I decided. I even wondered whether it was a way of getting back some power when I was feeling so powerless. Whether it was a way to take control, at least symbolically, of what was happening to her. I didn’t tell her about it until long after the play was finished. I didn’t want to insult her. I didn’t want to minimize her pain.”
This last concern is a real one, and strikingly similar to qualms writers have expressed about other stories of crisis. Some experiences seem both to demand and defy telling. And to tell someone else’s story of illness and fear and confrontation with death, with whatever degree of reverence, may seem presumptuous, for we possess our stories in a way that we possess nothing else. “But,” Dione reflects, “it’s my story, too. And in the writing of it I went deep into the heart of my relationship with my mother in a way I never had before. She was delighted with it. My struggle over whether and how to tell it was finally with myself, not with her.”
The play has been only locally and partially performed. “It still needs work,” Dione says, turning a craftsperson’s critical eye on its merits. “I might rewrite it. It might turn back into story. It may have served its purpose as a play. Hard to know where the process ends.” She concludes, as her play does, on an inconclusive note. At the end of the play the audience knows only that the mother is on continuing medication, “And only time will disclose the outcome.”
Inconclusiveness was a common endpoint to the conversations with all three of these women who know, in a way they couldn’t have known before, something of the contingency of life and health, and something of the malleability and power of story—of our capacity to turn events to our own purposes, to hammer them into sentences, and to be energized in the midst of illness and fear by loving and claiming that which, in us, is capable of transformation. All see writing, first and last, as an avenue of healing, insight, empowerment, and grace, and as a life-affirming act of a sort. Their vision may offer an answer to Audre Lorde, who wrote from the pain and despair of her own cancer:
How much of this truth can I bear
and still live
How much of this pain can I use? 18
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, now in the Department of English at Trenton State College, N.J., previously taught courses in medicine and literature at Mills College. She has written articles on aids in literature, aspects of storytelling in clinical dialogue, malpractice in fiction, and humor in stories of illness. She is currently doing research for a book on Henry, William, and Alice James and psychosomatic illness. She has published books on houses in American fiction, Dwelling in the Text, and therapeutic dimensions of autobiography, A Healing Art.
1. Chana Bloch, “In the Land of the Body,” in The Past Keeps Changing (Riverdale-on-Hudson, N.Y.: The Sheep Meadow Press, 1992). Future references are from this edition and will be cited in the text.
2. Anne Hunsaker Hawkins, Reconstructing Illness: Studies in Pathography (West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue Univ. Press, 1993).
3. Betty Rollin, First, You Cry (Philadelphia, Pa.: Lippincott, 1976); Jill Ireland, Life Wish (Boston, Mass.: Little Brown, 1987); Gilda Radner, It’s Always Something (New York: Viking Press, 1980; reprint New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989).
4. For further useful examples of cancer narratives, see Cathy Arden, My Sister’s Picture (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986); and Deborah Hobler Kahane, M.S.W., No Less a Woman: Ten Women Shatter the Myths about Breast Cancer (New York: Prentice Hall, 1990).
5. Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978); and Susan Sontag, aids and its Metaphors (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988).
6. Susan Sontag and Howard Hodgkin; The Way We Live Now (London: Cape, 1991).
7. Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals (Argyle, N.Y.: Spinsters, Ink, 1980).
8. Annie Lamott, Hard Laughter (San Francisco, Calif.: North Point Press, 1987); Ellen Gilchrist, The Anna Papers (Boston, Mass.: Little Brown, 1988); and Robert Ferro, Second Son (New York: Crown, 1988).
9. Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart (New York: New American Library, 1985); William Hoffman, As Is (New York: Vintage Books, 1985); and Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, two parts (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1992).
10. Jon Mukand, ed., Sutured Words: Contemporary Poetry about Medicine (Brookline, Mass.: Aviva Press, 1987); Leatrice H. Lifshitz, ed., Her Soul Beneath the Bone (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1988).
11. These interviews were conducted over a period of several months in the spring of 1993.
12. T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,” in Four Quartets, in The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909–1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962), 125.
13. T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” in The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909–1950, 58.
14. Lynne Sharon Schwartz, “The Wrath-Bearing Tree,” in Acquainted with the Night and Other Stories (New York: Harper and Row, 1984), pp. 74–82, quotation p. 79; included in Jon Mukand, Vital Lines (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), pp. 2–10.
15. Mary LaMattery is currently completing her novel. She may be reached with inquiries about publication date c/o Dr. Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Trenton State College, Hillwood Lakes, CN 4700, Trenton, NJ 08650-4700.
16. Dione Sobin, Zoe (c. Dione Sobin, 1993). Currently being revised. The writer may be contacted regarding the script c/o Department of English, Mills College, 5000 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland, CA 94613.
17. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying (New York: Macmillan, 1969).
18. Audre Lorde, “Need: A Chorale for Black Woman Voices,” in Undersong: Chosen Poems Old and New (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1992), 205.