Review: The Adventures of Cancer Bitch by S. L. Wisenberg Print

cancer_bitch(Contray Magazine Summer 2010)

Upbeat Diary: Victory Over Cancer

Not far into S. L. Wisenberg’s memoir, I was hooked on the deft craft of this writer. The longtime Chicagoan, author of Holocaust Girls, and Northwestern writing instructor couches this tale in the familiar lay of a diary—the year-and-a-half in which she was diagnosed with cancer, endured chemo, lost her curly tresses, threw up (but not much), and got through. Wisenberg’s approach, however, hardly records just the facts, the style our grandmothers used to bullet-point their identical days with. Instead, this “cancer journal” is thematically wrought and keenly essayed.

Deracinating the diary, Wisenberg includes little of the quotidian and lots of the indispensable. The time-frame is chronological, a recent spell of eighteen months, January 1 to June 30. The entries, though, are cleverly titled and shaped, mini-essays running in mini-fits-and-starts.

“February 25. about a day in which I buy a mastectomy camisole and fail to sway an alderman.” In this one, she rails against the authoritarianism of the pink-ribbon mafia: “In general, the pink ribbon thing is supposed to make you Feel Feminine even though you’ve lost the outward manifestation of what men think of as feminine in this country. Thank you, Hugh Hefner.”

As “teaching one-breasted” and “hair is a woman’s crowning glory” reveal, Wisenberg aims her arrow of woe at hair loss more than breast loss. She suggests that even diseased breasts are uninteresting: they are hidden, protected, sexualized, fixated on by infants and horny men. Instead, hair dazzles, especially Wisenberg’s. Her curly black mane—cuttable, growable, stylable—defines her. Hair and weight (more of the former, less of the latter) are the two physical attributes by which our culture measures women’s worth. Once the hair falls out and is replaced by the telltale cancer cap, women must remake a self to suit the sudden and newly seen self.

The interplay between self and image and how a woman plays it pre- and post-mastectomy is central to this memoir. One of her tacks is to leap across time and foreshadow her coming changes. For instance, on February 24, she writes “the thing about cancer is you feel great until they start treating you for it.” To my ear, this is a later understanding whose insistence early on makes narrative sense.

I admire Wisenberg’s squeezing tension between what she knows and when she knows it: tricking time (which incessantly tricks us) layers her prose and perks our attention. I also admire how often she stages her show-stopping humor, which too many of our writers’ “pathographies” about illness, to use Joyce Carol Oates’s term, lack.

Here, Wisenberg is negotiating an overdue fine with a librarian who’s wearing a pink ribbon. Clearly, she delights in playing the “cancer card.” “She says I look familiar and I say I remember talking to her about the Holocaust, and I say I used to look different, I had more hair, before I had a chemo cut. And she says, How are you? And I say fine, not even feeling guilty for my calculated cancer insert. Because what is cancer good for if not to help a person get out of paying fines?”

Wisenberg avoids the pity pot. She’s generous to including others: a married couple, Barry and Sharon, whose son Jesse died of cancer; Barry’s worsening M.S. whose plight balances Wisenberg’s; her octogenarian mother, a saint who supports her daughter and knows when to stay and when to go; her Rock-of-Gibraltar husband; her yoga class; her hairdresser; and a batty bevy of health-care nurses and bureaucrats, doctors and interns, who mostly don’t know what to say to patients and who seem not to care. (Is there an illness memoir that does not fault the medical profession?)

Cancer Bitch also feels right as chronology because Wisenberg shows us how she adapts to her unwanted role with aplomb whether she’s going bald, feeling mortal, or idling down. Her ability with memoir is to integrate person and persona, the one meld most sick-and-tired selves resist. She becomes conscious that the dilemma of the self is really the dilemma of the self’s role. By book’s end, the cancer has gone but it has left her more of the writer she wants to be, and is, and is, perhaps, her most coveted role.