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by Susanna Kaysen
Vintage Books, 2001
Review by April Chase on Nov 11th 2002

The Camera My Mother Gave Me

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 beautifully.

 

© 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.