When I was twenty-one and not pregnant, a stranger on the subway congratulated me on my pregnancy. It was so presumptuous. Preposterous! A decade later, in my own medical narrative, I again experienced unwanted public intrusion. Marcia Butler’s “Cancer Diva” and Katherine Mcfarlane’s “Flying into Jerusalem” illustrate this particular public quality of women’s bodies, especially during illness.
Butler’s attempts to hide her illness from her literal audience with makeup and a wig, yet she’s still an object of fascination, a target for gossip and stares. Mcfarlane is barraged by questions about when she’ll have children, and she cleverly disguises her pain behind the character of The Empty Uterus. It’s hard to understand why other people feel comfortable intruding—why Butler’s fellow musician asked her to stop pulling out her hair, why Mcfarlane’s family and friends felt it was okay to push her on the question of children.
And both of these women fight on. Butler plays her concert. Mcfarlane teaches her classes. They are brave in public (with half of hair in the garbage can, Butler “took out [her] oboe and finished the concert”) and they break down privately (“I mourn in my own way—quietly, as I muffle my nighttime sobs” Mcfarlane writes).
“You’re making me sick!” Butler’s colleague says as Butler pulls her own hair out during intermission. “The interest in my womb persists,” Mcfarlane acknowledges. Both women are subject to intrusion, and while they handle it gracefully, I find myself angry on their behalf. When a friend of my father’s battled prostate cancer, we didn’t learn until after the fact; no one looks at my husband’s belly in a bathing suit and asks how old his children are. (“We don’t have any yet…no, it’s not a C-section scar, I had abdominal surgery,” I reply while I avert my eyes, humiliated.) As Mcfarlane acknowledges, weight fluctuation complicates many medical conditions; I’m sick of telling people that I’m not pregnant, I’m just bloated from medications, distended from surgery, heavy from eating my way through a depression. What I don’t understand, though, is why people feel it’s okay to comment or to ask.
Each of these women wants to deny their truth because it feels like they’ve failed. Mcfarlane’s efforts to test her body for pregnancy result in even more medical complications: “even without a baby, I’m an unhealthy mess. I’m not ready to embark on another disaster.” Butler fights her oncologists, insistent that her breast cancer diagnosis is not invasive. It’s humiliating, not only because each feels that her body has failed her, but because there’s been an eager audience watching the entire narrative unfold.
Butler finishes her piece back onstage; she “reclaimed [her] position in the world as just a woman on stage, standing out as one of the crowd.” Mcfarlane finishes in quiet sobs, mourning, “the one [she’ll] never know.” They have struggled. They have fought. They have reached a place of acceptance. And they’ve done so with the figurative world watching; they both deserve thunderous applause.
HOLLY SCHECHTER teaches English and Writing at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. She graduated from McGill University with a degree in English Literature, and holds an MA from Teachers College, Columbia University. Schechter is active at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, where she received excellent care as a patient, and in turn serves on the Friends of Mount Sinai Board and fundraises for spine research. She is interested in adapting a Narrative Medicine writing class for her high school students. Her piece, "Genealogy" appeared in the Fall 2014 Intima.
© 2015 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine