REVIEW: Audre Lorde’s THE CANCER JOURNALS

lorde

The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde

San Francisco: aunt lute books, 1980

 

The Cancer Journals is a collection of essays by Audre Lorde about her diagnosis with, treatment for and healing from breast cancer and decision to undergo—and physical and emotional recovery from—a mastectomy. It contains and often riffs on excerpts from her personal journal in which she contends with her own fears and mourning, the inhumanity of the medical establishment, the warm support of the women in her life. These are powerful essays, insightful and unflinching and beautiful. Though she does not step back from the pain she undergoes, she speaks clearly about the power and support she finds, the connections to other women she intensifies, and the erotic experience of her own body. I’ve returned to this little book again and again and again throughout my adult life.

But these essays are about more than breast cancer, more than illness and disability. They are about strength, and hope, and feminism, and body politics, and power, and power, and power. Lorde frequently reminds the reader that these words are coming from a black lesbian poet, and this is important, I think—Lorde is positioning herself in the world, calling our attention to where she’s standing as she speaks. By doing so, she’s emphasizing the connection between lived experience, what one thinks about and what one is usually permitted to say.

If you’ve ever read an Audre Lorde quotation, chances are it came from this book. Remember “your silence will not protect you”? This book. If you have the T-shirt, you need to read the book, friends.

You may imagine that a book of essays about struggling with breast cancer would be depressing. This is not. Neither is it falsely uplifting (the expectation of a put-on-a-cheery-smile attitude, Lorde says, is a way of preventing women from knowing themselves and discovering their full power). The tone of the book lies smack in the middle: sometimes strong, sometimes terrified, sometimes mournful, sometimes pragmatic.  Extremely human. As a chronically-ill and disabled woman, I’ve heard Lorde’s words in my head numerous times—though I have never confronted breast cancer in my own body, Lorde speaks to my own experiences of illness and disability, and also to my experiences as a queer woman, a feminist, and even a writer.

Right now, reading these essays again (as I do every year or so), I’m finding them extra-chillingly-on-point. In this moment when institutionalized racism seems to be baring its teeth extra viciously at its targets, especially those who speak back to it; when American Black people in particular are endangered by our country’s own institutions, pResident and even some citizens; and when white folks, insisting on their “allyship,” are trying to divert attention to how white allies feel about all of this, Lorde’s words are frighteningly prescient.

“I have found that battling despair does not mean closing my eyes to the enormity of the tasks of effecting change,” she writes, “nor ignoring the strength and the barbarity of the forces aligned against us. It means teaching, surviving and fighting with the most important resource I have, myself, and taking joy in that battle. It means, for me, recognizing the enemy outside and the enemy within, and knowing that my work is part of a continuum of women’s work, of reclaiming this earth and our power, and knowing that this work did not begin with my birth nor will it end with my death. And it means knowing that within this continuum, my life and my love and my work has particular power and meaning to others.”

She also sees clearly how such a profound threat to her life (she’s specifically talking about cancer, but is also obliquely referencing racism and sexism and homophobia) sap her energy, divert her away from exercising her own power in the world. It follows that those who have an interest in keeping down Black folks, women, queer folks, disabled folks—those whose lives are easier if all of us just sit down and shut up—also have an interest in not finding a cure for breast cancer or other chronic serious illnesses, or enacting safeguards against homophobia, sexism and racism. (And not, I might add, making complete healthcare available to all of us…) I’ve often said that taking care of a debilitating chronic illness (in my case, Multiple Sclerosis and Type I/Juvenile Diabetes) is a full-time job and leaves little energies for other things. Lorde writes:

“I am often afraid to this day, but even moreso angry at having to be afraid, of having to spend so much of my energies, interrupting my work, simply upon fear and worry. […] I resent the time and weakening effect of these concerns—they feel as if they are available now for diversion in much the same way the FBI lies are available for diversion, the purpose being to sway us from our appointed and self-chosen paths of action.”

Imagine how much more productive, creative, brilliant Lorde could have been, how much more powerful, how much more of a threat to the status quo Lorde would have been, had she not had to expend so much energy just to stay alive. One might say the same for all ailing and disabled folks, poor folks, Black folks, LGBTQ folks, POC folks… And by making our lives harder, by not providing enough support and care to such folks, American culture/government is essentially sapping our strength and robbing itself of our contributions and active presence.

I feel this especially strongly during Pride month and in the midst of BLM demonstrations and our own pResident’s threats of violence and “crackdown” on demonstrators and dissenters. In this context, Lorde’s words, written in the 1970s, seem to predict this moment. But, of course, it is more likely true that, though much has changed, little has changed since Lorde wrote these essays. Our government is still under the sway of racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist agendas. Women, LGBTQ+ folks, disabled folks, POC, Black folks… all live with the threat of violence. All deal daily with a lack of fiscal, legal, intellectual and bodily safety and security. All need, desperately need, the brilliant, powerful, brave and true words of this book now more than ever.

 

Grow Up, Seriously Already

That title is ironic. Or it’s meant to be, anyway.

This afternoon, my wife and I drove down to Staten Island (about 1.5 hours away) to visit our friends, who have 3-year-old twin girls. I got home about three hours ago, and I need a nap. My wife just went to get a massage. Being around kids, even calm, well-behaved kids like these girls, is exhausting. This is an official shout-out to anyone who’s parenting actively: you are amazing.

We know some really not-good parents: they’re so tired, or so wrapped up in their own selves, or so mystified about how to handle tough situations with their kids that they just check out. The result is, often, rather ugly; we had one nine-year-old in our house throwing a tantrum because she hadn’t learned to occupy herself for an hour while her parents talked to other adults. (There were books here, and dogs and a cat, plus she had a car’s load of her own toys, and there is a big, fenced-in back yard… Plus a sink full of dishes and several loads of laundry that needed doing… I’m only sort of joking.) Her mother tried bargaining with her while her father ignored the whole ordeal entirely.

We know some really great parents, too. The parents we hung out with today, for instance, are great: they pay attention to their kids, but also manage to let them know that sometimes their attention will be on other people. They teach their kids how to amuse themselves (puzzles, books, coloring, playing with their dog–not plunking them in front of the TV, either).

My wife and I have chosen not to have children. Neither of us is so inclined, though both of us like our friends’ children and both of us have worked for 20 years with college-aged kids. But we know we just don’t have the energy or desire to devote to raising kids of our own, and since we’re monogamous lesbians, having kids would most likely be an active choice on our parts, one we’re able to categorically decide against. I like being an auntie instead–I’m “auntie” to several kids, and many more of my former students keep me around as some sort of friend-mom combo. I get all the fun parts of being around kids and young adults, with minimal poop and tantrums and guilt. (I’m not saying whose poop, tantrums or guilt it is… make your own assumptions, but I’ve watched enough parents to know the answers are probably not as obvious as you might assume. Also, please note that I have never been pooped on by one of my former college students–with them, it’s mostly the guilt and maybe the occasional tantrum.) I’ve had to give a few sex education talks and have spent more than one evening in an emergency room or at a hospital bedside. (Once, I had a student who had sickle cell anemia, and visiting him in the hospital during one of his more severe attacks was the hardest, most heart-breaking thing I can remember. My heart goes out to his parents.)  I do the worry thing, and the caring thing, and I get lots of rewards, but all parts of it, I imagine, are quite a bit less than they would be if I were a parent. Plus, with the older ones, I get to be a friend (one to whose advice they tend to listen), which means most of that stuff is given to me, too.

When my wife and I first got “married” (maaaaaaany years before we were legally married, of course, since that only just became a possibility, hence the quotation marks), several people asked us whether we were going to have kids. My wife has never wanted children, so the answer was pretty quick and easy to give. But we both began to feel really frustrated, because lots of people didn’t take us seriously because (1) we were not legally “married” and (2) we were non-reproductive (two uteruses, no testicles) and (3) we did not intend to bring children into our relationship at all. In many peoples’ eyes, you’re not an adult (and not in a “real” relationship) until you have children.

The combination of these 3 factors meant that, in many peoples’ eyes, we were not a “real” couple, even if those folks considered themselves enlightened enough to imagine a lesbian couple as potentially “real.” My wife has never wanted kids, and when she would say this when she was very young, everyone would tell her to wait until she was older, because her mind would change. It didn’t. From knowing young folk, I found out that a young woman in many states cannot get a doctor to tie her tubes until she is 25, because doctors do not want to help her make that decision “too early.” (Meanwhile, it’s fine for you to go into the armed services and kill people, sweetie, but we need to make sure there is at least the potential that we can knock you up.)

When you’re a lesbian, there’s an odd combination of sexism and homophobia (often called “heterosexiusm”) that comes to bear down on you. People assume because you are a woman you must have/want to have children, and if you are in a non-reproductive relationship, it is not real and, furthermore, you would have kids if you only could find a man to give you some genetic material with which to do it.

Understand: I am not vilifying anyone who chooses to have children. I know many, many fabulous parents who are making the world better by raising great kids. I am vilifying the notion that a woman must have kids, and if she does not, she is not a “real” woman and to be suspected of green-faced witchcraft; I am vilifying the notion that any relationship that is non-reproductive is not “real.”

My relationship with my wife has lasted longer than my parents’ (straight, reproductive, legal from day one) marriage.

I could go on for a long time and list out the relationships denegrated as not legit (non-monogamous, polygamous, non-reproductive, non-hetero, and in many cases, non-white and non-upper-middle class), but you can figure that one out on your own. I would, in tryin to make an exhaustive list, inevitably leave something out.

Points are:

  1. If someone defines their relationship or their being as important, then you best step to and respect it.
  2. Having kids is great, but not everyone needs to (or should) do it.
  3. Liking your friends’ kids doesn’t not equate to wanting your own.
  4. I like not having a lock on my toilet.