At the very end of the movie Misery, which I wrote about in my last post, a mostly healed and healthy Paul Sheldon sits in a restaurant with his agent. She asks Paul if he will consider writing a nonfiction book about his experience being trapped and tortured by Annie Wilkes. Paul looks flummoxed; he shakes his head a bit as if offended.
“Gee, Marcia,” he says, “if I didn’t know any better I’d think you were suggesting I dredge up the worst horror of my life just to make a few bucks.”
Paul is being asked what so many women artists are asked to do—to reveal pain to the public for a profit.
I just finished reading Anne Boyer’s new book, The Undying, wherein she writes about the diagnosis and treatment of her triple-negative breast cancer. She writes, “Women’s suffering is generalized into literary opportunity.”
Perhaps, before I tell you about the brilliant ways in which Boyer writes about art, pain, and femaleness, I need to acknowledge that some might say she is capitalizing on her own suffering, using her pain as a literary opportunity. Perhaps some will dismiss this book as hypocrisy, claiming that she points out the problems of capitalizing on women’s pain by capitalizing on her pain.
Those who dismiss this book for such a reason will be wrong—because Boyer writes not only of her breast cancer, but of America’s obsession, fetishization, and exploitation of breast cancer. She writes, “Cancer treatment appears organized for the maximum profit of someone—not the patients—which means cancer patients are kept in maximum circulation at a maximum rate.”
Beyond that, the profits made off the pain, suffering, and sicknesses of others are always exponentially greater than the money Boyer will make from this book. In fact, art will never make as much money as illness. In fact, the stark honesty she uses to describe how capitalism impacts illness is priceless.
It is a manifesto, and it is as much poetry as platform.
Within her story is an army of other artists, men and women, who have written about pain, who have had breast cancer, who have died from breast cancer and its treatments. Aristotle, Aereshelues, John Donne. Audra Lorde, Kathy Acker, Susan Sontag. To read this book is to feel infuriated by the injustices of the world, and yet also enlightened.
This enlightenment comes from the ways Boyer uses and examines language. There is a pulse thrumming beneath the criticism of capitalism, the medical industry, the pink ribbons and 5Ks, the toxicity and pressure and commercialism and never-ending feeding off of women’s pain. Because when poets write prose, it comes out like this:
If you hadn’t consented to treatment, the bad feelings probably would have come later. But you did, so the bad feelings are happening now. The only certain universe of a Thursday morning is sterile, hypothetical and smelling of Purell. A sparrow flies head-on into the window of the pavilion, recovers, then does it again. Everything seems decorated as a protest against interesting. The poet Julian Spahr has come to visit from California, and she and I fill out prayer cards in the lobby and slide them through the cut in the gift-wrapped shoe box: Please pray, we write, for American poetry.
This paragraph reminds me of Adrienne Rich’s poem “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” a poem that repurposes the title of John Donne’s poem in order to push back against the male-poet-established rules of language—“My swirling wants. Your frozen lips.” Her’s is a poem resisting patriarchal restrictions and releasing feminine energy.
Boyer uses Donne, too, to make literary sense of her cancer, since he also wrote about illness, about dying. There is a metaphysics in making sense of pain, love, and art. All things we cannot touch but that seem to need validation.
Because just as art needs an audience, pain needs an observer, someone outside assessing the pain, measuring it, often with a number that never seems to accurately coincide, and that is in no way universal. Pain has an audience of x-rays, nurses, physicians, and insurance companies.
And like art’s audience and pain’s doctors, the assessment is problematic. In art and in pain, validation is steeped in the practices of a history of men. Boyer reminds us that a woman who pushes back against these practices is deviant.
To be deviant is to stand out, to move away from what is expected, to stand alone, to become a spectacle. There is so much spectacle in art, in being a woman, in having pain, so much being watched. So much objectification.
Boyer describes the ways she is deviant: pushing back against a baby-faced doctor, researching her own treatment, voicing her pain out loud, and also the ways she is (forced to be) compliant: going to work after chemo in order to keep her insurance, wearing make-up in order to appear well, staying quiet when she wants yell. In these fluctuations, she thinks about all the ways women with breast cancer are deviant and complaint, about the ways all women are.
What she is also noticing is that, even as she sick, she must perform roles long established as women’s roles. Boyer talks about filling out of forms, raising her daughter, dressing for chemo. In addition, she writes about what it is like to do these things alone. She is in-between, not a child with parents to dote on her, not married or partnered with anyone significant. She is a caregiver without a caregiver.
I find it interesting that the words “caregiver” and “caretaker” mean the same thing. It seems they should be opposites.
Perhaps “caretaker” should be another word for “patient,” the person taking care from another person who is giving it. There is something violent about that, though. As if taking is like grabbing—unexpected, unwanted. Boyer also thinks about the language we use to describe pain, how it shifts, but does not fail. She wants to make a language out of the hairs falling from her scalp. If she did, I’m sure that, too, would be art.
Herein lies the overlapping complications about woman, art, and pain. How each are looked at, validated, and compromised through patriarchal tradition.
In 1976, Marina Abromovic performed “Rhythm 0,” a piece that tested the limits of the artist and illuminated the power of the audience. On the table in front of Abromovic lay seventy-two objects varying from perfume and a rose to a pair of scissors. In addition, there was a gun, loaded with a single bullet. Abramovic allowed her audience to look at her and then use those objects on her body, any object, in any way they wished while she stood still. In her blankness, with the hum of spectators around her, Abramovic became an object, rather than a woman. The exhibition started off pleasantly, softly, human. Until it didn’t, and her clothes were cut off, a knife was pushed between her legs, and finally, someone put the gun into her hand and curled her fingers around the trigger.
“Rhythm 0” seems to me a metaphor for cancer treatment.
The ways we look at art, place value on art, expect art to exist, parallels, or perhaps intersects, the ways women are looked at, valued, and expected to exist. All value comes from the looker, little is thought of the maker. And in this similarity, I understand Boyer’s examination of the ways we treat women with breast cancer. We pin them with pink ribbons and call them survivors as they take in poison previously used in wars, as if it were a serum for eternal youth and beauty, which, of course, women should also surely take. Little is thought of the repercussions or the reality of the woman with the port in her chest.
When “Rhythm 0” ended, Abramovic looked at herself in the mirror and found one gray hair.
Boyer says suffering, like poetry, is said to be “for nothing.”
I wonder if poetry was given value the way pain is given a number, whether there would be money in the arts. I wonder why we need to assign a value to either. Is there no end to capitalism? Is there no art, no woman, no pain in existence, if there isn’t an audience willing to gobble it up?
In that last scene of Misery, before Paul scoffs at his agent’s suggestion that he make money from his pain, his agent compliments the success of his newly released book. To this he says, “I wrote it for me.” He is not concerned about his audience.
Boyer, the caretaker, the deviant, the poet, is concerned about her audience. Toward the end of The Undying, she writes, “Nothing I’ve written here is for the well and intact, and had it been, I never would have written it. Everyone who is not sick now has been sick once or will be sick soon.”
My answering machine is blinking. On it is a message from the radiology department, reminding me that I am due for a mammogram. I hate its green light, so rhythmic and so constant.