- Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer by Susan Gubar
When regarding the pain of others, Susan Sontag once wrote, "there is the pleasure of flinching" (2003, 41). Sontag was primarily discussing war photography and the ethical implications of looking. The pun of her title encapsulates one of the conclusions she comes to about images of atrocity, that "there's nothing wrong with standing back and thinking" (118). "Regarding" pain means taking it under consideration while also maintaining a distance from it, the kind of intellectual distance implied by regarding a work of art. Looking is always a matter of interpretation and discourse, informed by the myriad influences of history, and so, along with the pleasure of the flinch, looking makes choice possible—against violence, say—and therefore also change. [End Page 370]
Our memoir-happy age seems to have decided that the kind of imaginative looking involved in reading others' suffering can have enormously beneficial rather than potentially degrading, objectifying effects. The crucial difference is self-authorship, of course: while the memoirist has a kind of control over the shape of the story, a dying soldier captured in the pages of a magazine does not. But I think Sontag's point about viewing war photography applies to reading trauma memoir in the sense that reflective distance from stories of pain or suffering does not inherently repeat that suffering by aestheticizing it. The opportunity to "stand back and think" is precisely what powerful life writing offers us, perhaps especially when the experiences described combine shock with the kind of legibility required for action. In bearing witness to damage, the act of making private pain public—regarding it—generates the type of creative power that Virginia Woolf once claimed could bring the "universe to order" (213).
In the context of what we variously call autopathography and disability narrative, illness memoir and dolorology, Susan Gubar's recent account of ovarian cancer joins the ranks of books that operate in the cartographer's language as well as the shorthand vernacular of letters between friends. In making sense of the body, these stories can provide the comfort of shared experience or instruct the uninformed; often, they present an account overtly aimed at countering the authority of medical discourse—a discourse frequently charged with the perpetration of unwelcome rehabilitative efforts or dehumanizing attempts at "cure." "The story of illness that trumps all others," declares Arthur W. Frank at the start of The Wounded Storyteller, " . . . is the medical narrative" (5). When people with disabilities or illness emerge from the anonymity of case history and write for themselves, the resulting tales have what Frank considers a post-colonial force: individuals speaking truth to the power of medicine and its generalizing view of sickness, ill people "refusing narrative surrender" (16). Gubar makes her counter-discursive intentions clear at the outset. "My central motive," she writes, "consists of a fierce belief that something must be done to rectify the miserable inadequacies of current medical responses to ovarian cancer" (xiii). Hers is the "activist's stance," and as such must appeal emphatically, if not primarily, to those who do not share her condition or her viewpoint about standard remedies. That means no-holds-barred on the miseries and humiliation of so-called treatment. Memoir of a Debulked Woman will make you flinch in places you didn't know you had. [End Page 371]
We would not expect polite reticence from Susan Gubar. When The Madwoman in the Attic, co-written with Sandra M. Gilbert, first appeared in 1979, second-wave feminism was fighting the conflation of woman and body (and also nature, emotion, and illogic), and feminist literary critics went up against paternalistic anxieties of influence and interpretive penetration of texts. Women were largely absent from the roll-call, whether as authors or scholars; Gilbert and Gubar argued that "the female writer's battle for self-creation" required a difficult revision of gender socialization and that "women writers participate in a quite different literary subculture" from that of men, one with its own "distinctive...