Cancer Gadfly: What’s God Got To Do With It?

I was mulling over Oliver Sacks’s mellow meditation on his terminal cancer diagnosis, when Jimmy Carter came out with his cancer story. (Curiously, both illnesses caused by melanoma.)
The one, a secular Jew from an Orthodox Jewish background, the other a born-again Christian, both look serenely on how cancer will―or may―end their lives. Carter, at 90, is explicit about his fearless attitude toward death: “I’m perfectly at ease with whatever comes. I do have a deep religious faith, which I’m very grateful for.”

Sacks, 82, equally at ease, references what religious feeling means to him by invoking his memories of the Sabbath, though not as a matter of belief.

I envy their serenity, notably Sacks’s by virtue of common ancestral roots, though as a woman with cancer but no nostalgia about the Jewish Sabbath, I can’t go there. Celebration of the day of rest ended with my grandparents, and I have put nothing in its place.

Cancer makes me mad, and God is no help at all.

On the same page as the coverage of Jimmy Carter’s cancer diagnosis, a devastating article reports on the now debatable merits of mastectomy for women diagnosed with D.C.I.S. breast cancer. “It now appears that treatment [surgery] may make no difference in their outcomes.” Wow. The findings of the study are subject to debate, but treatment through surgery, now common, may well end up being rethought to dramatic conclusions.

I do not envy the women who have undergone the surgery, perhaps needlessly, it now appears. If I had, I’m not sure I could have waded through the waffling in the report without exploding with rage. But even minus the personal experience, there’s plenty of bad news about the disease and how it affects women for me to be riled about.

In The New York Times of Sunday August 23, 2015: I read the obituaries of three notable women, including the brilliant Svetlana Boym, whom I knew slightly, dead of cancer at 56. The other women, equally accomplished in their fields, also died of cancer at relatively young ages―young relative to me, at my ever-advancing age―and the ripe old ages of Sacks and Carter.

Too many women, some friends, some unmet, are dying of cancer. The attitude toward death from cancer (and other life-annihilating diseases) I admire has best been expressed by Simone de Beauvoir. It comes at the end of her memoir, A Very Easy Death, perhaps the first memoir to deal with witnessing the death of a loved one from cancer. Beauvoir writes after witnessing her mother’s death at almost 80:

Cancer, thrombosis, pneumonia: it is as violent and unforeseen as an engine stopping in the middle of the sky. All of us must die: but for each death is an accident and, even if we know it and consent to it, an unjustifiable violation.

I know it and I do not consent.

What I Don’t Want to Remember

There are lots of jokes about forgotten anniversaries, usually to reprove husbands who have forgotten the anniversary of their marriage. I have forgotten my own wedding anniversary numerous times, much to the chagrin of my husband. But an anniversary I would rather not remember is the date of Carolyn Heilbrun’s suicide. Today, October 9 as I write, is the anniversary of my friend’s suicide. Actually, it was a Thursday not a Wednesday, but I guess the date is more to the point, though the day seems more real. Carolyn believed in routine, and Thursday was Susan Heath.

I was in England when Carolyn’s great friend Susan Heath called with the news. Thursday was their designated day for dinner, and when Susan arrived at the building for their date she discovered the body. “The journey is over,” Carolyn wrote in the only note we know about, “Love to all.” Carolyn had left little to chance and she had counted on Susan to have the strength to survive the experience.

41Qb2iDjtVLToday I was teaching poems by poets Carolyn loved and admired, even if she had occasional minor quarrels with them―Rich and Sexton. Reading poetry today in the digital age is a heightened experience since we can look at and listen to poets reading their poetry. While looking at the YouTube menu, an interview between Diane Middlebrook and Anne Sexton caught my eye. I couldn’t resist making the students listen to Diane’s voice―we had just read her wonderfully explanatory essay “What Was Confessional Poetry?”―and it seemed appropriate to listen at least briefly.

Slipped into my copy of  Rich’s The Fact of a Doorframe, was a fax from Carolyn: CGH to NKM, dated March 19, 1998. It was the closing stanza of “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law.” Beneath the poem Carolyn had handwritten a quotation from The Second Sex in which Beauvoir creates the metaphor of the amazing woman that Rich seems to reprise when she writes–“as beautiful as any boy/or helicopter.” Beauvoir’s prose: “she is a helicopter and she is a bird.”

These two friends loved poetry and both are dead, Carolyn by suicide in 2003, Diane from cancer in 2007. Sexton’s suicide links Carolyn and Diane in my mind. Carolyn was an attentive reader of suicide; so was Diane, since she had also written the biography of Plath in her relation to Hughes.

Suddenly, there I was in the classroom looking at bright young faces and feeling very far away, in a place where death was all too real. I did not mention the anniversary to the students because it would not have been an anniversary for them; they had nothing to remember.

For over 20 years, I had dinner with Carolyn. Tuesdays. As each week passes, I remember that I’m not having dinner with Carolyn, or as my husband used to say, “having Carolyn.” That day of the week always seems empty to me.

I’ve picked up the weekly dinner with Victoria Rosner, who had also been Carolyn’s student. Carolyn almost always dines with us.

I wish Carolyn had not felt so alone. I wish she had let time catch up with her. Today she’d have been 87. It’s not, I think now, that old.

Alpha Females Tell Us How to Do It All

Why do women who have what they think other women want–the magical trifecta of ALL: husband, kids, big job―feel the need to tell women who don’t “have it all” (whether they want it or not) how to have (or “do”) this elusive ALL?

15STYLESQA2-popupAnd why invent or repurpose words like “leaning in” or “satisficing” (accepting second best―the B+ life, or maybe, if you’re lucky, an A-) to express this so-called analysis in bestselling, or soon to be bestselling books? Who is reading these books ?

Why invoke the legacy of seventies feminism as the main cause for contemporary women’s failure to reach this pinnacle of satisfaction with an S? Perhaps the need to bend the language to express the argument offers a clue to their misreading of a feminism that as I recall had quite other goals.

It would be difficult to find recommendations for climbing the ladder of success in the writings of Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone, or Germaine Greer, to name a few. As I recall the days of feminist consciousness-raising groups, the goal and dream was to find some measure of fulfillment in some realm of our own lives, but also to work for concrete improvement in the lives of other women, perhaps less fortunate. This heartbreaking article about women who, no matter how hard they try, cannot afford a home that is not a communal shelter, is a painful reminder of how relative all success for women is.


I don’t have it all, and I don’t know anyone who does or thinks she does.

We used to complain about men telling us what we want. Now we have to hear it from other women.


After a long, long plane trip—including 3 hours sitting in the plane on the ground at JFK as we waited for de-icing, and 4 hours in Roissy airport because we had missed our connection to Genoa (at least we got an economy meal voucher—economy meant literally, alas)—we finally arrived at Bogliasco, the location of my working paradise for the next 30 days. That oxymoron is also a challenge: can I get any writing done in such a beautiful setting?


My fellowship project for this precious residency at Bogliasco was to continue work on the “feminist friendship archive” I’ve been developing , and I hope to do that.

I am mesmerized now, for instance, by the following, daunting passage in Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. It’s the moment when 10-year-old Simone meets a new classmate Zaza, the childhood friend whose death will close this first installment of Beauvoir’s four-volume autobiography:

I needed her presence to realize how much I needed her. This was a blinding revelation. All at once, conventions, routines, and the careful categorizing of emotions were swept away and I was overwhelmed by a flood of feeling that had no place in any code. I allowed myself to be uplifted by that wave of joy which went mounting inside me, as violent and fresh as a waterfalling cataract, as naked, beautiful, and bare as a granite cliff.

I can’t say that I have ever experienced that violence in discovering a friend, but I am fascinated by its erotics and what it might mean in the evolving emotional shape of Beauvoir’s life.

A charming photograph of the two friends as young women appears on the cover of the fairly recent publication of Zaza’s letters and notebooks that I’m about to plunge into in order to read the other (equally passionate) side of their poignant story.


At the same time, just before I left New York for Italy, I received the copyedited manuscript of my new memoir, Breathless, due very soon.

And so I find myself happily torn between these two projects. Where to begin?

Solution, since the sun has miraculously appeared: go for a walk by the sea.

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