Our seminar readings this week include Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals. I’ve written about that book many times. Here are my current thoughts.
I feel like writing “Dear Audre”, because her/your work speaks to me directly, as a dialogue. Lorde’s writing makes Anatole Broyard’s Intoxicated by My Illness seem like a performance—a brilliant performance and one he desperately needs to believe it—but still a performance. Broyard needs his audience in a way that Lorde doesn’t. She’d like to move us, sometimes, and other times to persuade us, but she doesn’t need us. She knows who she is in a way that leaves me wondering whether Broyard really does. He knows who he’d like to be, and he mostly pulled off being that, but the quality of work in his writing differs from hers.
To go back to the beginning of my relationship to this book, simply getting a copy of The Cancer Journals wasn’t straightforward in the early 90s. I’d heard about the book a long time before I found a small feminist independent bookstore in downtown Calgary that would order it for me. The publisher, spinsters/aunt lute, had limited distribution. Holding a copy, when it finally arrived, felt like a hard-won treasure.
My reading was continually interrupted by my compulsion to run to wherever my wife was and read a passage to her. She’d stop and look at me, hearing it, and we both felt like somebody out there had experienced cancer the way we had. That connection is what illness narratives, memoirs, are.
The line that spoke to us first was: “Your silence will not protect you” (20). There had been so many silences during my cancer, and even more during the months between my mother-in-law coming out of her last remission and her death. So many silences, and far from anyone being protected, relationships were so fractured by those silences. Some finally were repaired, others never were or have been. On our account Lorde could have said: Your silence will corrupt you, impairing your life worse than the effects of disease itself.
The work of memoir truly is “reclaiming of that language which has been made to work against us” (22). Has anyone since Lorde ever claimed, so compellingly, her right to speak, to fill the silences with her need to use language to speak of what happens truly? The question she raises is crucial: what are the languages that work against ill persons and their families? We need a list, possibly beginning with medical languages, then extending to all sorts of evocations of health.
When I read The Cancer Journals, the memoir I had written, At the Will of the Body, had had some success (if not the sales that the publisher imagined in his dreams), but I was unsure what followed. Alongside what Lorde said about silence, what she said about work was crucial to me. Her most non-rhetorical question, “because I am myself, a black woman warrior poet doing my work, come to ask you, are you doing yours?” (21), went straight into me. Thirty years later, it’s what I still ask myself: am I doing the work that I, given who I am, can do?
Cancer on Lorde’s account is not an experience, as in “the patient experience”. It’s a calling to a work. Are you doing yours? Albert Schweitzer wrote, after his own critical illness following World War I, of the fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain. Lorde would, I think, have understood that phrase, and Schweitzer would have understood what she meant by work.
Broyard observes that doctors discourage our stories. Lorde would the expand the scope and raise the intensity of that. The point of her most specific stories—especially the nurse who demands she wear a prosthesis, a “form” (58-9)—is that medicine demands that patients participate in enacting a particular narrative, which I later called the restitution narrative. For Lorde, that narrative legitimates the demand to consider breast cancer as a problem of public appearance, and one that is readily solved with the proper prosthesis. “Her message was, you are just as good as you were before, because you look exactly the same” (42). That’s written about the Reach for Recovery volunteer, whom Lorde sort of likes personally, but who represents a toxic narrative. The nurse is more explicit when she tells Lorde, “Otherwise [not wearing a form] is bad for the morale of the office” (59). Never have I read such a clear example of how healthcare workers impose their needs on patients, redefining those as the patients’ needs. The nurse’s speech is language being made to work against Lorde, from which she needs to reclaim a language of her own. I have sociological reservations how far any language can ever be ‘our own’, but Lorde sweeps those aside; she compels me to believe she speaks for herself.
What I’ve said–what she says–crystallizes a tension that needs to be kept alive when we place illness narratives under the rubric of medical humanities or some such. What’s the work that such rubrics imply? Reading Lorde, the work seems to be this: How do we help ill people’s narratives do their work of reclaiming experience in the person’s own terms, which is often reclaiming from institutional medicine? I imagine how Lorde might have spoken at some of the healthcare conferences where I’ve given plenary lectures. I feel the guilt of wondering whether I was doing my work.
How far is it possible, I’ve asked myself for years in multiple contexts, for healthcare to recognize the dimension of illness that lies beyond the disease, what Lorde calls “the whole terrible meaning of mortality as both weapon and power” (53). Doctors don’t just discourage stories. The whole healthcare complex is organized to blunt the weapon and power that Lorde is pointing toward. That blunting is enacted in the nurse’s demand to wear a prosthesis. It’s the point of waiting rooms: not only to optimize physicians’ time by having patients always ready, but to induce passivity in those patients by wearing them down, teaching them to devalue their time, to be the supporting actors who sometimes come on stage to be a foil to the lead, but mostly sit waiting in the wings.
Lorde’s line, “In order to keep myself available to myself” (65) is for me a found version of a Zen koan. What does it mean, to be available to yourself? Lorde recognizes this complexity early in her book when she asks herself: “And which me was that again anyway?” (24). There is never a singular self, transparently self-knowing. But, that doesn’t mean that people should cease asking whether they are available to themselves, and what is the currency of that availability? For Lorde, it seems to be a currency of friendship in life as she lives it among women, and writing, as her work. I hope that circle can then expand to others of us who ask her questions, seeking to participate in her work.
Here’s a tentative definition of the work of memoir: As the author makes themselves available to themselves, the effect is to allow readers greater availability to themselves. In hearing Lorde’s stories, we can reclaim our own, as weapons that are a source of power. Lorde’s chosen words, weapons and power, would not be my choice of metaphors; for me, weapons especially have too many other connotations and memories. But Lorde reminds me, all these decades later, what it was about, what the work should be, and what remains.