With a day full of rain, hail, and even thunder-snow, we elected to spend classtime watching the film adaptation of Margaret Edson’s play W;t. We decided to save our discussion of Audre Lorde, Angelina Jolie, and breast cancer for the following week, where guest speaker Dr. Janet Gilsdorf was coming in to speak about her experiences as a physician and as a breast cancer patient. I had been worried about how to show excerpts of W;t and do the film justice (I think it’s an incredibly powerful work), so I was happy to be able to show it to them in its entirety.
Tag Archives: Audre Lorde
Angelina Jolie’s story of a mastectomy has been permeating through media. With a high genetic risk for breast cancer (>85%), Jolie made the conscious decision that she would not let herself fall victim to cancer. She chose to have a double mastectomy, ridding her body of potentially cancerous cells and replacing them with breast implantations.
Her Op-Ed piece in the New York Times is an interesting and well-written piece, and her decision to undertake a preventive mastectomy all the more admirable. But there was one thing that I wish she had explored more: why the need for the breast implantations following the mastectomy?
I ask this because in reading her piece, I was reminded of Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals (as I always am when I hear about breast cancer now). Lorde vehemently critiques the prosthetic breast, suggesting that it is a materialization of societal expectations for women rather than a functional physiological necessity.
Although I realize that Lorde’s strong sense of identity set apart her somewhat controversial critique of the prosthetic breast, it has made me question them more. I imagine that Jolie’s identity as an actress demands for her prosthetic breasts, but I wish she had spoken more about this second, equally important decision in her story. This decision becomes buried beneath the mastectomy, almost as though it was not a decision at all but rather an expected follow-up course of action.
In reading her story, I also think it’s interesting to consider the effects of illness on celebrities. As I opened the article, I was taken aback to realize that I actually recognized the name of the author. I wonder how an illness narrative is altered by a person’s identity as a celebrity and how this impacts its resonance with readers.
It seems like it was Jolie’s awareness of this difference that encouraged her to write this piece, to share her battle, to tell her story.
After encountering numerous sneak previews of Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals in my preliminary readings about illness narratives, I had high expectations. And Lorde certainly did not disappoint. I was incredibly impressed by the true poetic beauty of her writing, the honesty of her exposure, the infallible strength of her will. Her character was moving: her possession of breast cancer and her strong, dedicated commentary about prosthetic breasts, about being a “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, woman,” about being herself (92).
Through post-mastectomy journal excerpts, Lorde takes the reader along her journey with cancer. She acknowledges the need for language to escape the comfortable but inadequate confinements of silence, claiming that “what is important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood” (17).
She explores her arrival at the decision to have the mastectomy and the love and support of women who enabled her to endure the procedure and the pain. Lorde resists the prosthetic breast, instead allowing herself to acknowledge the loss of her right breast, to examine its absence, and to accept. She powerfully critiques the prosthetic breast and plastic surgery breast reconstruction, calling attention to greater social flaws in the perceptions and expectations of women as objects of attraction. Lorde boldly makes claims that invite a pause, a reconsideration of the present rather than a blind acceptance of the way things are.
Lorde has been a source of inspiration to many: Blacks, women, lesbians, aspiring writers/poets, cancer warriors, and more. The powerful prose in The Cancer Journals leaves no question as to why this book resonated with so many and still does today. As the first of its kind, the first to take a step back from conventional depictions of illness through the triumph narrative, this book does not shy away from the truth of Lorde’s pain, even if it is alarming and painful to experience as a reader.
Within the eloquence of Lorde’s writing, two repeated phrases stood out to me. Lorde referred to “america” many times (ex. 77). Not “America.” “america.” Each time I did a double take, left with an unsettled feeling as though something wasn’t quite right. There was something extremely jarring about her conscious choice to resist this conventional norm, to be aware of it and to decide against abiding by it. In deflating the capital A, Lorde powerfully disregards the power attributed to America as a nation such that it becomes just another word on the page. The persistence of her power, in many ways shaped by her encounter with cancer, is repeated throughout her journal and her reflections: “once I face death as a life process, what is there possibly left for me to fear? Who can ever really have power over me again? (63). Through The Cancer Jounals, Lorde finds a way “to be of use” (50).
1. Excerpts from Lorde’s journal of the past are interspersed with her reflections from the future. What are the effects of this on the narrative? Does it distort the narrative?
2. Why might Lorde consistently disregard the capitalization of America?
3. How has the breast cancer movement and experience been revolutionized and transformed by Lorde’s book?