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“Illness Memoirs”…from Women Who’ve Survived

When writing about my experience of my husband’s rather devastating prostate cancer surgery, various publishing people pressed me to “write a happy ending.”

One editor pleaded, “Please don’t get divorced.” (I’d voiced no such intentions.) Of course, I was free to tell my story however I pleased, but I was advised to give readers the message that I’d triumphed over adversity.

What is it about Americans and happy endings? Hollywood, made-for-television movies, disabled celebrities—it’s one thing when the media broadcasts victory against seemingly unbeatable odds, but the literary memoir is a form where tragedy could be given respect.

Perhaps the rigid requirements of the ending propelled these writers—good people to whom bad things happened—to enhance their storytelling with stylistic inventions.

Suzy Becker (Everything I Need to Know I Learned From My Cat) had seizures for years; at age 30. testing discovered a brain tumor. Surgery followed, and then recovery and rehabilitation, most notably rather extensive speech therapy. In her new book, I Had Brain Surgery, What’s Your Excuse? (Workman, $19.95) Becker once again treats us to her whimsical cartoons (nearly 400), an imaginary medical super heroine named Augusta, bar graphs to measure such things as “The Regeneration of Hope,” “Disappointment Timeline,” and “Good Patient hood.” In addition to her many visits to doctors, we hear about relationships with her girlfriend Karen, family and friends, and most of all, about the emotional odyssey that invariably accompanies serious illness. But Becker triumphs. She completes Ride FAR, an AIDS bike-a-thon. Only months after brain surgery, she wins a Bunting Fellowship at Radcliffe College, where she again proves victorious with a colloquium on—surprise—the first 20 pages of what became this book.

Canadian feminist filmmaker Bonnie Sherr Kiein, in Out of the Blue: One Woman ‘s Story of Stroke, Love, and Survival in collaboration with Persimmon Blackbridge (Wildcat Canyon Press, 1998), narrates her transformation from activist artist (“Not A Love Story: A Film About Pornography”), mother of two, loving doctor’s wife—to an invalid felled by a stroke. Seven years later, when being better means getting around on “Gladys,” a motorized scooter, and working for disability rights, Klein begins to write her story. The result is a book made not only from her retrospective chronicle, but from a collage of interesting sources: snippets of her diary kept during serious illness, medical reports, short interviews with her doctors, husband, teenaged kids and close friends, all of whom relate their experience of watching Klein struggle to get well. And yes, tragedy has taught her many things, among them, to slow down and to ask others for help, thereby enabling a mitzvah.

Life Inside: A Memoir by Mindy Lewis (Washington Square Press, $24) is Lewis’ chronicle of her many years spent overcoming calamity. In 1967, Lewis, age 15, was skipping school, smoking pot, and listening to Dylan. Her father took off for California, and her mother, unable to cope with her moody, rebellious daughter, signed her over to state custody, who then sent her to the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Lewis remained there for over two years. (What is it about Jewish mothers and their artistic daughters?) Most tragic, Lewis was misdiagnosed as having schizophrenia, a not uncommon mistake for the psychiatric profession in the 1960s and 1970s. Lewis’ book contains testimony from a therapist who retrospectively diagnoses her as having had only “adolescent rebellion and despair… turbulent emotions….” Indeed, part of her triumph is to visit the ward 33 years after her stay. An adult now, the place no longer intimidates. She can forgive her doctors and is surprised to connect to feelings of intense joy. But that does not reverse the fact that a difficult, even troubled coming-of-age for Lewis was made enormously more complicated by her forced hospitalization. “Ultimately, recovering from incarceration and sorting through its myths has been the greatest education of my life” she says near the end of her moving story.

To write and publish an illness memoir is itself a triumph over adversity. These are the survivors, the ones who came back to tell us their stories. Unwritten and truly tragic are the stories of the many more who did not.

Karen Propp is the author of two memoirs, In Sickness & In Health: A Love Story and The Pregnancy Project: Encounters with Reproductive Therapy. She lives in Cambridge, MA.