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Living on the Margins is a literary anthology of breast cancer with a distinguished list of 18 contributors, all writers--poets, critics, academics, editors, essayists. Their writing, wide-ranging in genre, style, and tone, includes personal narratives, poetry, academic essays, and an interview.
Contributors include Maxine Kumin, Safiya Henderson-Holmes, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Lucille Clifton, Alicia Suskin Ostriker, and Marilyn Hacker. The editor, Hilda Raz, argues that because there hasn't been much literature on breast cancer (there's been a "margin of missing literature," she claims) this collection was brought into being.
At the age of 42, Barbara Rosenblum learns, after several misdiagnoses, that she has advanced breast cancer. This book, co-written by Rosenblum, a sociologist, and her lesbian partner, Sandra Butler, a feminist writer and activist, is a record of their lives together from the diagnosis until Rosenblum's death three years later. Early on, Rosenblum decides that her dying will be exemplary and self-conscious, and she and Butler use their writing as a way to create an illuminating examination of their lives over those three years.
The book's title is accurate; the writing takes the form of alternating meditations by two women, on the effects of cancer on their relationship, their work, their families, and their social, political, and spiritual beliefs. Especially significant are the differences between their voices, and the differences between the experience of the person who is dying and that of the person who is going to have to survive and grieve. The writers bravely explore the conflicts between them as well as their profound bonds.
After a mastectomy and eighteen months of chemotherapy, Rosenblum has a very brief respite, followed by liver and lung metastases, and prolonged further chemotherapy. A few months after ending treatment, she dies at home.
Madame Ranevsky returns to her estate after five years in Paris, where she had fled after the accidental death of her young son. In the interim her brother and adopted daughter have been running the estate, which has gone hopelessly into debt, largely because of Madame Ranevsky's improvident life style. As she and her adolescent daughter Anya arrive, friends and retainers have gathered to greet them. Among these are Trofimov, her dead son's tutor and an ineffectual idealist; and Lopahin, a brilliantly successful businessman whose father had once been a serf on the Ranevsky estate.
The family's beloved cherry orchard, along with the house and the rest of the estate, are about to go on the auction block. Lopahin proposes a solution: break up the cherry orchard into building plots and lease them to city folks to build summer villas. This would generate an annual income of 25,000 rubles and, thus, solve all of Madame Ranevsky's financial problems. She refuses to consider cutting down the orchard. Her brother, Gaev, gravitates ineffectually around the problem, suggesting various harebrained schemes to raise money, but in the end he believes there is no solution: "Someone gets sick, you know, and the doctor suggests one thing after another, that means there's no cure . . . " (p. 346)
The auction occurs, and, lo and behold, Lopahin himself has purchased the estate with the intention of developing the property for summer villas. In the last act, as Madame Ranevsky and her family prepare to vacate the house, workmen hover in the background, ready to begin chopping down the orchard. Madame Ranevsky departs for Paris, and Lopahin leaves to pursue his business in the city. A much alluded-to liaison between Lopahin and Varya, the adopted daughter, dies on the vine, apparently because the businessman has neither the time nor inclination for romance. As the house is closed up, Firs, the senile 87-year-old servant, is inadvertently left behind.
Motivated at first by an attachment to her strict and demanding ballet teacher, as well as frustration and disgust with her own body compared to other dancers', Francesca develops an obsession with weight loss and increasingly ritualized forms of self-discipline in eating and exercise that lead to severe anorexia nervosa. It takes her family several months to see and acknowledge what is happening in front of them, during which she has trained herself to eat less and less, to throw up after meals, and to push herself to the point of exhaustion.
She becomes secretive, isolates herself from friends, and puts up a wall between herself and her parents, who are unable fully to understand the degree to which her behavior has gone beyond her control, but are worried. A compassionate male therapist with clear boundaries and a non-judgmental approach finally succeeds in disengaging Francesca from the mutually destructive downward spiral of family conflict around her illness;
he helps her to envision and desire her own health and to take responsibility for recovery. The story is told in the third person, but from Francesca's point of view.
Katie is a promising figure skater whose divorced mother drives her relentlessly to perfect her skills, at almost any expense. What her mother and coach don't know, but her English teacher begins to figure out, is that when Katie gets to an emotional edge, she hides and cuts herself; the pain and blood help focus her mind. Not until she goes over that edge one day at school and begins slamming her locker door on her hand and then banging her head on the wall does she begin to get the professional help she needs.
After a couple of false starts, she finds a psychiatrist experienced in working with teens in trouble who enables her to tell truths she hasn't for years been able to admit to herself or speak of to anyone else. Her mother resists other adults' help and almost succeeds in getting her out of therapy, especially group therapy with girls her mother labels "delinquents." But Katie finally manages to make some choices against her mother's wishes--an immense step out of the depths of years of co-dependence.
As the story ends, she has come to realize the girls in the group are capable of being real friends--something she hasn't had for a long while--and she is capable of making choices toward her own healing, the first of which is to seek and accept real help and to distinguish it from pleasing adults who are using her to assuage their own pain.
The story begins as an MRI technician assures Baily that "Contrary to popular opinion, . . . this is not a torture device." The test was ordered because her arm suddenly went numb and she suddenly lost most of her vision during algebra class. With no idea what's wrong, Baily speculates about the possibility of a brain tumor, about how disease will change her life, about early death. She is uncomfortable with her mother's cheery reassurances, which consist mostly of simple theories like the possibility that Baily was reacting to missing lunch, but wants them, nonetheless.
Since the pediatric wing is full, she is put in a room with an old woman for observation overnight. The nurse runs her through a series of highly irrelevant questions about her physical health from drug use to dentures. Then her mother is required to leave for the night. In the morning they take her for an EKG before her mother can get there; Baily returns to her room in a state of morbid conviction that she's dying, which is finally overturned when the doctor comes in to explain to her that she had a classic case of severe migraine.
This first-person narrative of a runaway girl's short stay in a residential mental health center develops her impressions, resistances, and accommodations from her admission ("I can see right away it's a nuthouse") to her release. These include reluctant interviews with the staff counselor, uncomfortable encounters with nurses, observations of other patients' erratic behavior, and efforts, finally, to communicate with a very detached roommate.
"Stevie" speaks from a place of anger and mistrust. She attempted suicide in the girl's bathroom by slicing her wrists, but regards herself as otherwise quite competent. A turning point comes for her when her silent roommate sings a song she's written which ends with the words, "Don't forget to cry." This moment of vulnerability, which also unveils surprising talent and beauty, moves Stevie from anger toward curiosity and sympathy.
She takes steps toward friendship with her roommate, and finally toward reconciliation with her mother who, she realizes, really wants her home. As she leaves, Zena really addresses her for the first time, reminding her, "Don't forget to cry."
Alison, 39 years old, is twice-divorced, with three children, on the verge of moving in with a man called Bobby. Her breast is sore and she is afraid it's cancer. Her mother tells her it's more likely she's pregnant. She says she uses contraceptives; her mother tells Alison that she was conceived when a condom broke.
Alison considers abortion, recalling her last pregnancy. Having given birth to a child with Down's Syndrome who died at three months, she had had amniocentesis and was told that she was carrying twin boys, both normal. When the twins were born, though, one turned out to be a girl. One twin, it seemed, had been tested twice. Although the female twin did not have Down's Syndrome, Alison began at that point to worry about luck and the uncertainty of medicine (and of life).
So now, pregnant again, she asks her mother what she should do, and is told to "trust to luck." But she is afraid that her luck has run out and she must take control for herself. A scan shows that she is carrying twins again. Only now does her mother tell her that she is in fact a twin, that her sister had Down's Syndrome and died shortly after birth--in fact, her mother admits, the midwife "did away with" her. (The euphemism carries the senses both of euthanasia and of murder.)
Hearing this, Alison decides she wants to have an abortion right away. Her doctor, thinking the problem is that she wants only one child, gives her the option of selectively terminating one fetus and carrying the other one, but tells her she wouldn't be able to choose which to keep and which to abort. She rejects the idea, imagining how she'd tell the surviving twin about her decision later on, and decides instead to "have them both and trust to luck."
As she leaves the clinic, she begins to bleed and miscarries. Later her mother tells her that she, too, once miscarried twins, and tells Alison she'll have better luck next time, because of the bleeding: "Blood, " her mother says, "is the libation the God of Chance requires."
Wealthy American widows Alida Slade and Grace Ansley have taken their two marriageable daughters on a Continental tour. As the story opens, the older women linger at a restaurant with a view of the Forum while their daughters leave for an unchaperoned outing. The women talk of how carefully their mothers guarded them, and how their own mothers were in turn warned of Roman fever to keep them in at night.
Alida pushes the talk back to their girlhood, and Grace’s illness after a nighttime sightseeing trip; she reveals her knowledge that Grace had really gone to the Forum to meet Alida’s fiancé, Delphin Slade. Impelled by a mixture of jealousy, guilt, and vengeful satisfaction, Alida declares that she, not Delphin, wrote the letter summoning Grace to the tryst. This initial crisis is followed by a much more powerful one when Grace makes her own revelations about that night at the Forum.
The first chapter of this memoir consists of two words: "I exaggerate." The narrator then tells us the story of her childhood and early adult experiences as an epileptic. After having her first seizure, at the age of ten, she spends a month at a special Catholic school in Topeka, Kansas, where the nuns teach epileptic children to fall without hurting themselves. This falling may or may not be literal; it is certainly symbolically apt.
During adolescence, Lauren begins lying, stealing, and faking seizures to get attention. She reveals that she has developed Munchausen's Syndrome, whose sufferers are "makers of myths that are still somehow true, the illness a conduit to convey real pain" (88). A neurologist, Dr. Neu, performs surgery severing Lauren's corpus callosum, effectively dividing her brain in half and markedly alleviating the seizure disorder.
Later she attends a writer's workshop where she begins an affair with a married man, a writer much older than she. After it ends badly, she starts going to Alcoholics Anonymous (although she does not drink) and tells her story with such authenticity that when she later confesses that she is NOT an alcoholic, no-one believes her, dismissing her true story as denial. The memoir ends both with her recognition of the value of narrating and with a silent fall to the snowy ground, as the nuns taught her to do, in the knowledge that the sense of falling (rather than the material certainty of landing) is all that is finally, reliably, real.