by Susanna Kaysen
Vintage Books, 2001
Review by April Chase on Nov 11th 2002
This little book is somewhat strange.
It is not by any means pornography, yet I must confess I was careful not to
leave it on the coffee table, where my children might see it. I found it well
written, witty, and touching and I hid it nonetheless. But why, you ask?
Because, you see, The Camera My Mother Gave Me is a book about vaginas.
It is about one vagina, actually:
Susanna Kaysen's. Something "went wrong" with it, and she visited
doctor after doctor, endured excruciating pain and the self-doubt that comes
when medical professionals cannot tell you exactly what it is you have (maybe
it's all in your head!) and finally, she wrote a book, this perfectly normal memoir
with nothing particularly obscene about it, which I suspect very few people
would display prominently in their homes. Would we be so circumspect if it were
Susanna's teeth that went bad? Would a book about gallbladders inspire the same
daintiness? I think not.
Kaysen felt the weight of societal
vagina taboos, too. When doing self-exams, she writes, "I felt I was doing
something forbidden. I would have preferred to study my vagina in a brighter
room, like my study, but I was afraid people would see me doing it (my street
is narrow and my neighbors are very close) so I stayed in the dark, shaded
bathroom. I felt I wasn't supposed to be investigating it at this length or
at any length, really." Although
sex is commonplace in the media, and death scenes are prevalent to the point of
ennui, disease is still a touchy topic in our culture - especially if, like
Kaysen's affliction, it has that faint hint of naughtiness. Gonorrhea and
erectile dysfunction are not generally considered suitable topics for conversation,
and neither are vaginas.
The pain her mysterious ailment
caused led to further problems for Kaysen, including lifestyle changes such as
driving less and not wearing pants, and relationship problems:
I tried explaining what it felt
like to my boyfriend. There's a firecracker in there, I said. It's like a sore
throat I thought this was a helpful image. It's similar to a throat anyhow,
so this is a really sore throat. So sore you don't want to swallow, you know
that kind of sore throat?
He looked at me quizzically as I
made these analogies.
I don't have one, he said, so I
really can't imagine.
You have a throat, I pointed out.
I'm trying to imagine, he said.
We were completely miserable.
She is bounced from doctor to
doctor, diagnosed with many things - yeast infection, possible herpes,
perimenopause, scar tissue irritation, high oxylate levels - and is given
remedies of all sorts to try, from novocaine cream and cortisone shots to
yogurt douches and tea baths. None of them work. "Some days my vagina felt
as if somebody had put a cheese grater in it and scraped. Some days it felt as
if someone had poured ammonia inside it. Some days it felt as if a little
dentist was drilling a hole in it
" she writes. Ouch.
She continues to have problems with
her boyfriend, who blames her somehow for getting sick, and as the months slide
by, begins to suggest that her problem is more mental than not. Finally, she
begins to wonder if that could be true. She asks her nurse at the alternative
clinic she visits, "Is this a hysterical illness? He thinks it is. No,
said the alternative nurse. There are physiological changes."
The frankness with which Kaysen
discusses her travails is commendable. The fact that none of her doctors could
help her is heartbreaking but important. Despite all the advances we've made,
medical science still doesn't know everything, and can't always fix every
problem. Of course, any patient with a non-curable disease quickly learns that,
and comes to understand the trade-offs that are necessary just to get from day
to day. Ask any diabetic who has had to give up foods they once loved, or any
former dancer or athlete benched by arthritis or a bum knee. It is a lesson I
think all of us could benefit from, about what is really important, how fragile
we really are, and how precious the good things in our lives. Kaysen teaches it
© 2002 April Chase
April Chase is
a freelance journalist and book reviewer who lives in Western Colorado. She is
a regular contributor to a number of publications, including The Business Times
of Western Colorado and Dream Network Journal.