Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Containing Death

Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Containing Death

Article excerpt

February 6, 2005. The memorial celebration for Jeri Wine is being held in Room 2-214 of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), the building where we once worked together.

I find a seat in the large, bleak room and survey the scene. Where is everyone? Jeri had touched the lives of so many. I anticipated this cavernous space would be filled to overflowing, as it was in the '80s when feminism galvanized us. Instead, scattered amongst the crowd, I recognize six or seven people I once worked closely with but have not seen in years. We smile, hesitate, and take the leap over past differences. I am delighted to see them. Alienation eases its grip round my throat.

It's been six years since I've set foot inside the OISE building. When I left, I had to sever relations, totally. I didn't do it consciously. I only knew that contact would set off migraines I could no longer endure. I see that the dead air space of the OISE building has survived, stale and stagnant, still casting its ghastly pallor, still sucking the life force from those unable to resist its ashen kiss.

The florescent lights, dimmed this day of somber celebration, still crackle overhead. I look around. Where have we all gone? When did the energy dissipate?

I ache for the death of Jeff. We met in May of 1982, when I interviewed for a faculty position and Jeri was on the search committee. There she was, a cascading mane of auburn curls, loose-limbed and smart, honey in her Southern drawl, laughter in her eyes, asking questions that took me aback. I'd come from L.A. Jeri shocked me out of any stereotypes I had of Canadians. This Canadian from Oklahoma challenged me on feminism, forcing me to think harder about why I wanted to focus upon women in my work. I was vividly aware that Jeri was an out lesbian. It was unnerving. Exciting. What were my desires'? my longings? my motives? What did I have to offer this energetic, bustling scene?

Caught up in the euphoria of white feminism, in the early '80s we were idealists, blazing new pathways, breaking out of oppressive marriages, challenging heterosexual norms, pushing the bastions of white male power. We had divisions for sure, the liberals against the radicals, the radicals against the socialists, till these neat certitudes imploded under the weight of racism. We scrambled to keep up, fought and despaired. But mostly, it was a time of hope, a dream of unlimited possibility. We were a sisterhood, working together, strategizing into the night--how to get more feminists on staff, funds coming in, courses on the schedule, students into programs. They came, wonderful bright, engaged students, constantly confronting us with the limits of feminist idealism.

When did our bodies begin to fall apart? Fatigue, headaches, chronic illnesses, diffuse diagnoses. Jeri leaves, Paula Caplan leaves, I leave--unceremonious leavings, spurred by the gradual deterioration of relations that accompanies the breakdown of bodies. We are not the only ones who struggle to survive the deadly breath of the OISE building. Those of us who suffer from its effects know this air is toxic, but we cannot prove it. Overwork is easier to see; it is the stressor we try to manage. But the building, the building, it encases and entombs all of us. People express concern about our health problems, but the assertion that they are linked to toxins in the air we breathe is met with resignation, skepticism, or denial. Too often our realities are trivialized, and we are dismissed as complainers or hysterics. Uncharted deaths, unknown causes.

Jeri died of mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Only asbestos? Is there asbestos in the OISE building? What other noxious chemicals circulate through the ventilation system, through our respiratory systems?

About 15 years ago, Jeri, Paula and I sought legal advice to see if there was anything we could do to about the quality of air in the OISE building and its deleterious effect upon our health. …

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