Feminism and Dying: Reading Sedgwick Part One

Part One: Finding A Voice

My writing is difficult.

“B,” I’ve heard people say. “If only you wrote what you just said, exactly how you said it, instead of the way it was written–I would have understood you.” Really? I meant the same fucking thing in the same fucking grammatical ways, just with different symbols called words! I wanted intensity to reflect the lives I was writing about. Why do I have to stop mid-sentence to explain “sensorium,” “affective attachment,” or a “culture of epistemic myopia.” I don’t want to care more about writing, just the subject. What an abyss.

So I’ll do a little story-telling and give a little structure to what all this blog project (as I’m calling it) is about.

I’m going to share some details about my life that has impacted the multiple trajectories I have taken in my life. I’m going to break this project up over several parts, this first being the inaugural part (who knows how many after). It’s about the parallelism between the book I’m currently reading, Eve Kosofky Sedgwick’s A Dialogue on Love, and the linkages between her prose and analysis and my own experiences growing up with a mother with cancer.

Throughout this multi-part project I’ll be emphasizing themes I’m sure I can’t predict now. But I can think of one for this particular entry, what could be called the phenomenology of shame and what prevents me (or us) from writing clearly about emotional living (or affective experiences). Perhaps this project is a way to think about (past and present) affective experiences in reparative ways. 

When I think about it, this seems to be the most ridiculous thing? I can’t even write about what I find to be the most constitutive and transformative series of experiences in my life: Barbara, my mother, and her slow death of breast cancer. Every time I do write about the experiences, I feel like I’m pandering, like I want pity or something. Even to this day when I mention that my mom passed away more than 12 years ago, I cringe. Everyone has their mom. “I’m so sorry.” For what?

So don’t feel sorry. This isn’t sentimental. Just read. Just read without the questions of “what does the author intend to do here.” Don’t let the confusion of incomplete sentences and tense issues stop you. Just. Read.

I.

I grew up around cancer. My aunts both lived with and died from it. My mother lived with it for most of my life until she, too, died from it.

Suddenly, I’m a 16 year old queer all over again, learning for yet another time that she’s been re-diagnosed.

Standing in the kitchen of our New Mexico home on Kirtland Air Force Base (my mom would always call it “Kirkland” for some reason), fixing a pot of ramen noodles. “Sweetie, we have some news…”

And then breaking down while being told everything will be alright.

And the anger at the complete wantonness of it all: the privative life of a kid whose parent is dying and no one else can see it so that they might feel it. The smell of the oncology ward and the pit that grows like a plague seeing all those women on pull-out chairs attached to IVs, their heads wrapped in cloth for reasons you can only reason are for warmth, not aesthetic value.

Or the shame of feeling like I have to “deal” with another one of her mastectomies, her complete hysterectomy, her bed-riddenness, her inability to get up before noon each day, her loss of appetite, her sudden outburst of crying, of telling her to “stop” and then finding myself retching at my own disgust. And the ensuing emotional distancing because the shame of not being able to look at her without feeling pity, or that she was pathetic and weak, or that anyone would wish to be someplace else–it all became too strong. And I vomit.

And then the substance abuse that people call “self-medication”–only it was neither about myself nor particularly medicating. It was her. Just like the cutting, burning, whipping, and scratching that “self-injury” diagnoses relish in calling “unhealthy coping mechanisms.”

Or the reprimand from my Oma (father’s mother) that “you’re going to regret” not spending enough time with her. And of yelling at my Oma, an old German immigrant, that she had no “fucking clue” what she was talking about. And the awkward lunch she then took me to.

Or the college days that were really not a reprieve. It was a first semester of hell that started with a move-in that required my mother to sleep through a majority of it. And the biochemical bullshit of taking two different antidepressants and something else (I can’t remember) to help me sleep and something else (I can’t remember) to give me energy. Existing in a zone of in-between-ness.

Or of the constant phone calls to make sure everything was alright. And it always was. And then the Stevie Nicks concert where Barbara wore her shawl and twirled like she was the bewitching star on stage and “so there you go again, you say, you want your freedom.” You’re right Stevie. The shame I felt because was when I realized I didn’t want my freedom from Barbara but from her sickness and the distance it put between us.

And of finally being put at ease. She was OK. Even though she was never quite available to talk on the phone anymore. Always asleep. But that she wanted me to teach her about the Supreme Court because I was asked to lead a panel discussion in which I defended a more progressive affirmative action program at NMSU and knew my shit about case law and argued against a group of “dumbass white folks.”

Or that time where, after letting my hair down, relaxing, I came home from a drunken night with a friend, both naked in bed, feeling like I was living my best life, finally. And the phone call in the morning from my father, “You need to get here. Your mom. She has a week.” And the fire, fury, futile rage, anger, betrayal, blasphemy of words that couldn’t meld a single potent expression of the pitiful state. Just feeling. A raw nerve. I was in the fetal position, hungover, weeping on the floor of my college apartment.

And then suddenly being there in the hospital room, seeing her take her last breath. And hating my brother and my father for making me watch. And hating being there in that room.

Because there is nothing beautiful about watching someone die.

II.

It doesn’t take a professor or a therapist to feel that “shame is a painful thing to write about. It gets into your body. It gets into you.” That’s what Elspeth Probyn intones in “Writing Shame.” It’s about exposure and vulnerability that drives the urge to turn away from the computer screen, close your laptop, and walk away. Because, exactly like you’ve been taught your entire life, you don’t want to be sentimental in your feelings or writing. You don’t want the weight, a pathos so overbearing as to be writing mere melodrama. But “it’s the challenge of making the writing equal to the subject being written about. The gulf between the two may bring on the feeling of being a sham or…a deeper shame.” Elspeth gets it. “Shame forces us to reflect continually on the implications of our writing.” She gets it.

Then there’s Sedgwick’s canonical account, that shame “is the affect that mantles the threshold between introversion and extroversion, between absorption and theatricality, between performativity and–performativity.” Shame has the affective force of interrupting all of us midway through a sentence, or an utterance, or wordless thought. It’s as constitutive as it is interruptive (maybe both are the same?). And thus in writing, there’s an ambivalent practice that occurs. A distancing that the author creates from the subject because, well–you don’t want to get too “in the weeds” and forget your own “voice.” Or the feeling that being too dispassionate makes you sound like an asshole, like a typical social scientist whose voice is overly formal–banalizing the singularity and beauty of a life. Where does the middle ground emerge? Is it somewhere between that introvertedness of a writer who knows the subject but can’t grasp the words, filled to the brim with affect and the extrovertedness of the scholar who has the words but lacks the affective content to match the subject?

I found a semblance of an answer (so far) in A Dialogue on Love, Sedgwick’s account of her experiences with therapy after being diagnosed with cancer. My copy of the book, the 1999 edition from Beacon Press, has no table of contents. It’s set up very much like a diary, starting in 1992. And while I was reading I couldn’t help but think of where I was in 1992, with my mother who, although in remission, still had to deal with the knowledge that her cancer can return at anytime. She had lost a sister already.

You see, the first two chapters of Sedgwick’s text deals with the dialogue she and her first (cis) male therapist, Shannon, have. It’s a reflection of those exchanges: of her intellectualism and its effects on her desire, her relationships, and her need to be in therapy.

The reading is a dreamscape. A set of memories. As memory then…

In 1992, I was in Colorado. Aurora, Colorado to be exact.

Nine years old. I remember even then feeling so energetic about nearly everything except cub scouts. I knew what “cancer” was. I knew it was deadly. At night I would say the same prayer exactly 15 times before I could sleep, “God keep my mother alive.” It was exactly 15 or the prayer was worthless. Everything had to be perfect for me. (I’ve since been diagnosed with OCD.) However, this is what Lauren Berlant has called “affective attachments”: things that bring about a sense of a secure, durable world. I excelled as a student. I didn’t have academic problems. I loved to read about facts–just facts. Encyclopedic facts, actually. My mom had bought a partial set.

Not surprisingly, I was an introverted kid. I liked playing with Adam, my handsome best friend and neighbor. But what I loved most was being at home with my mom. Watching “Unsolved Mysteries” with her until bedtime. My mother was even the den mother of our local cub scout chapter. She had energy then but was still very thin.

I remember she had a prosthetic breast from her first bout with cancer. She showed it to me in order to explain it because, well, I didn’t know why she even needed it. “You are who you are,” I told her. I couldn’t (and didn’t) tell anyone else that she had cancer, that I was terrified she was going to die from it, that it could be my fault. There was an internal intensity that never quite made it to the surface of my body as a child. And every night I would lie there in bed, petrified that if I didn’t pray just right, get into bed just right, I would jeopardize my mom’s life. I would even sneak into her room at night and ever so carefully hover over her face to make sure she was breathing. One night she woke up and caught me and gasped in terror. I ran with such motivation back to my room, hid under my covers, expecting punishment.

Nothing happened. She just asked what I was doing in her bedroom. I told her that I was making sure she was still alive.

Perhaps these scenes in 1992, alongside an entire lifetime of experiences contemplating her death and her bodily appearances as a result of chemo or radiation therapies, is why I tend to question mine or anyone else’s privilege, their “OK-ness of being,” as Sedgwick puts it in her book. Because, like Sedgwick, I was (and am) stuck an impasse in this. How many other (at least white) kids in that neighborhood, or that school, could actually say they felt and knew what death was? That they lived with it every day and that it consumed them to the degree that their ordinary–those rhythms and grooves of expectation and relief in everyday life–was broken into vignettes of prayer, anxiety, play, and emotional fatigue from making sure they weren’t the ones responsible for their mother’s death? What happened to that kid who loved their mother so much that they grew up that, for a time, they felt ashamed of her illness? Where is the kid (in the adult now) that thrived on love and security?

End of Part One.

(The second will be to stage a textual event on the shoulders of the first, if only to broker some conversation between feminism and hetero-masculinity. Or what the witnessing of slow death does to a person’s sense of belonging in the world [i.e., my father]).

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