Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Verbal and Visual Rhetorics of Cancer: Defying Silence in Margaret Edson, Audre Lorde and Jo Spence's Works

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Verbal and Visual Rhetorics of Cancer: Defying Silence in Margaret Edson, Audre Lorde and Jo Spence's Works

Article excerpt


In this essay I offer some powerful verbal and visual examples of the rhetorics of cancer in an attempt to bring to our attention the experiences and reflections of those who felt more like medical cases than persons-patients while facing and eventually dying because of cancer. My essay is a critical "travelogue" through the pain of the other, more specifically as it is presented in Margared Edson's play Wit (2000), Audre Lorde's memoir The Cancer Journals (1992), and Jo Spence verbal and visual memoirs Putting Myself in the Picture: A Political, Personal, and Photographic Autobiography (1988) and Cultural Snipping: The Art of Transgression (1995).

Keywords: Cancer, Embodiments, Power, Writing


In her book, The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry makes the following assertion: "Because the person in pain is ordinarily so bereft of the resources of speech, it is not surprising that the language for pain should sometimes be brought into being by those who are not themselves in pain but who speak on behalf of those who are." (1) Needless to say, there is a clear distinction between incipient pain and its last stages, where one's language as well as one's body's stamina are devoid of power and significance, rendered almost, if not completely, unspeakable. While Scarry's endeavor is to bring into discussion instances of those who are in pain either in torture or at war, my essay examines the fundamental birth into embodiment through the pain of cancer as experienced by three women: Vivian Bearing in Margaret Edson's play Wit, Audre Lorde, and Jo Spence.

While one may not be able to accurately verbalize one's pain when in pain, nonetheless one never forgets it. Paralleling the pain of the other, in this essay I analyze the depths and limitations of the emotional recall. In "Autoethnography, Personal Narrative, Reflexivity: Researcher as Subject," Carolyn Ellis notes that the emotional recall is used when we want to understand an event that has left serious marks on our identity.

As she remarks,

   The advantage of writing close to the time of the event is that it
   doesn't take much effort to access lived emotions--they're often
   there whether you want them to be or not. The disadvantage is that
   being so involved in the scene emotionally means that it's
   difficult to get outside of it to analyze from a cultural
   perspective. (2)

What Ellis describes above applies perfectly to my case. When my mother died because of cancer, I did not record her reactions--although some of her intense painful moments did leave an irremovable scratch on my life's "tape." Years after her death, I realized my double loss. Not only did I lose my mother because of breast cancer, but also--without keeping a rudimentary diary--I lost a record of her then reactions, as well as mine. Because of that, I felt I experienced a loss of a loss. Luckily, through the experiences of Bearing, Lorde, and Spence, I have been able to "reconstruct" some of my then feelings vis-a-vis my mother's suffering, and thus, once again stress to my readers the importance of recording what they feel. I believe it is important to record what we feel not only for our own sake, but also to let our feelings participate in a dialogic community of cancer survivors, cancer victims, and/or relatives of the two.

In this light, a question that needs to be raised is, what is the connection between medicine and art? As Thomas G. Couser asserts, "The word 'pathography' first caught my attention not in its clinical context, in which it simply refers to writing about illness, but in the context of 'autopathography,' i.e., autobiographical narratives of illness or disability." (3) For Ellis, during the process of autoethnography, one reveals one's vulnerability, and that is a courageous act because, once we reveal our vulnerability, we cannot "[t]ake back what [we]'ve written," just as we cannot have "[a]ny control over how readers interpret it. …

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