Review

Welcome to the Epidemic

The Summer of Her Baldness: A Cancer Improvisation
Catherine Lord, University of Texas Press, 2004
Erika Suderburg

I’ve spent a lot of time this summer considering enormous philosophical issues in rooms that are too small, too cold, too bright, have dark stain-concealing carpets, and involve formica. Either their walls are covered with small patterned wallpaper or they are painted salmon. They feature posters gone magenta of paintings by artists no one minds. Desktop stress-reducing fountains are also popular. The magazine selections are unsatisfying (p. 103).*

The Summer of Her Baldness: A Cancer Improvisation arrived in my mailbox this morning along with my eagerly awaited July copy of Punk Planet with a sidebar report on Jackie Farry’s FUCK CANCER, a rock and roll organization devoted to raising money for people who are young, uninsured and (obviously) have cancer. Jackie Farry and Catherine Lord AKA Her Baldness make a fortuitous early summer pair, a serendipitous meeting of women who craft passionate and inspired responses to an epidemic and its imaging in a culture awash in deadly denial. Farry and Lord have declined to consume platitudes devised by people who are cancer- free, manage institutional systems of patient delivery and would like sick people to behave like good sick people and abdicate agency in the face of the collapsing health care system, a criminal lack of social and governmental services, the dehabilitation of their bodies, and our culture’s continual quest to marginalize and erase women well outside the sexual economy. And in Lord’s case, eradicate the queer who is not The L Word able-consumable or Monster transformo Hollywood star playing a safely executed killer.

As a dyke who does not fit neatly into any sanctioned and/or rationed visible slot, Lord is interested in examining how we talk about cancer and decline to talk about cancer and how the lesbian body shifts, morphs multi- ple genders and is written stubbornly visible through force of will, wit and subterfuge. Although I never knew Her Baldness (HB) I feel honored to be able to consume her cancer missives, rants, essays, diaries, statistics and reportage whole. Reading the book is like indulging in delectable eavesdropping that leads you further into truths you wished you hadn’t been privy to but from which you cannot unhook yourself. HB is a fierce, brilliant, angry, funny, demanding and loving dyke list-serve persona created by Catherine Lord who re-maps her body, navigates, nurses, melts and rages through disease, treatment and recovery.

 

Metastatic art world gossip. I am being recate- gorized from invincible castrating lesbian bitch to has-been on her last legs. She used to be so tough. That’s what they’ll say. She must have gone downhill (p. 32).

 

In The Summer of Her Baldness, Lord chronicles her individual body in violent flux, both external and internal, and how that body functions in a public of lovers, students, listeners, doctors, medical technicians, ex-lovers, artists, colleagues, institutions, readers and writers. She expertly crafts a per- versely public intimacy that deploys HB and the semi-private list serve address as a tool that facilitates an interlacing of journal entry, e-mail responses, storytelling and meditations on photography, writing and healing.

A long time ago, Ed used to print for Ansel Adams. Perhaps the zone system made him fastidious. He didn’t put a drain under my arm and he saved the nerve, making this the one and only time in my entire life that I have benefited in any way whatsoever from Ansel Adams’ theory of photography (p. 13).

 

The book doesn’t lend itself well to encapsulation, review, digest, Cliff Notes or a five-line assessment that would appear neatly in Publishers Weekly. A reader starts it in the morning and finishes it sometime in the late afternoon unwilling and unable to extricate, completely unresponsive to interruptions of any kind. Lord has written a book that ignites and cajoles multiple cancer tropes including the empowerment book, the triumph story, incessant military metaphors, multiple new-age imaging techniques, the freshly purchased Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book, the minutiae of medical procedure, the investigation of Buddhist precepts, and the revolts of support groups.

 

Lord has managed to touch on all these trajectories while questioning and outlining what constructs the parameters of the imagining and imaging of breast cancer. The acts of IT, living within IT, the charting of IT’s course and the people who inhabit the periphery of the subject containing IT. HB is part of the subject, but she is also a rrriot girl who creates and demands agency with a systematic and detailed recounting of the routine of unacceptable routine: the “weed killer” of chemo coursing through her veins, waking up with her own hair in her mouth, and a game of gender misidentification on an airplane. The airplane incident is power- fully indicative of the invisible lesbian or the all too visible dyke, of the process of being funneled through an unsolicited process that can kill or save, buy some time or stop the clock permanently. As Lord explains about this particular airplane drama, why not be mistaken for a balding middle-aged white guy with bracelets instead of a sick dyke?

 

Thanks to weed killer, the immune system that I need to fight the cancer cells is being sacrificed to the fight against the cancer cells. The medical profession finds fighting more attractive than figuring out how or why or where to fight. It’s all about purity and pollution. It’s the language of the border police and of racists. It neither lowers my stress nor increases my strength to use such language. Doesn’t hatred damage the one who hates more than the one who is hated? (p. 90)

 

The proactive stance is in the recording: listing gifts, difficult discussions with friends about what has happened to friendship, decisions about how to break the news back home in Dominica, how to put off the book that was supposed to be about growing up in Dominica and the colonial subject, while Lord’s body detours and demands the writing of an unplanned cancer book. The reader progresses chronologically through this summer and accumulates samples from a daily life playing at conflicting speeds, baffling and terrifying.

Lord, privately and HB list-serve publicly, contributes to the chronologic accumulation. Catherine and her lover Kim decide against chemo for Chloe the cat, who is put to sleep. Lord makes journal entries on depression, “killing” Chloe, green shit, and the shame of “being marked.” She reads Pema Chodron on Buddhist meditation clearing a path to really seeing the garbage underneath. HB reports on feeling a few newly born hairs painstakingly sprouting from her previously smooth pate and thinks there may be a time that she can abdicate her role altogether. Lord makes a list of things starting with T: Talk, Taste, Taxonomy, Tears, Tenderness, Testaments, Tests, Texture, Thanksgiving, Thick, Time, Tint, Tits, and Tumor. (p. 164) HB and Lord are never two separate people but rather more like two people creating a correspondence that is instantly transferred back and forth over exposed neural synaps- es; painful and immediate, connecting with a clarity and precision born of scrutiny and an unavoidable reflection on the skin and bones that house us.

This book originates from a decisive and strategized collision of form: the practice of journaling fused with a 21st century internet immediacy of images traveling at fiber-optic speed within which correspondences take place in seconds. I think this book has been written for the same reason the photographs within it were taken.

 

The impulse behind these photographs exists in a grammatical space I don’t yet inhabit. I make them because I want to have them when I inhabit a tense I have not yet lived to see. I want to use them as blocks in a language that I should like the opportunity to learn. These are the sentences I want to say, one of these days. I look like shit in these pictures, but I took them when I used to have breast cancer. I took them when I had breast cancer. I took them when I once had breast cancer, and that was a long summer. (p. 91)

 

This book is fabricated in transparent, viscous layers that will build a re-figured body in relation to public regard. Hair is central to the explanation of the disease and its eradication but it is also a substance that queers her relationship to her pre-cancerous self. Lord’s hair along with her right breast is in play. Multiple authors, characters and authorities subject them to multiple redefinitions.

 

Gender in bud is not what we usually get to see. Gender in bud is thin paper. Gender in bud is beyond delicate. Gender in bud is flimsy. When you turn up the lights, it’s not much of a performance. (p. 115)

 

Ah! But what a performance. Lord has writ- ten and performed a devastatingly beautiful work that underscores the banality, surreality and cold sweat fear of being othered via an internal body revolt, a distinct and gendered epidemic whose short hand code is simply BrCa. This is autobiography insanely close to the skin, surgically grazing the intimate, the abject and the joyous and refusing to avert any gaze whatsoever. I would suggest that copies of The Summer of Her Baldness be “mislaid” in every miniscule but bone-shak- ing exam room that conforms to at least three of the aforementioned six items on Lord’s medically scenographic list.

* All quotes are from The Summer of Her Baldness: A Cancer Improvisation by Catherine Lord, unless otherwise notated.

Erika Suderburg is an artist, filmmaker and writer who lives in Los Angeles. She is the editor of Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art, University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

 

 

Further Reading