A Cancer Memoir that (Mostly) Gets It Right

I have rarely read a book that inspired so many different reactions, in such quick succession, as Heather King’s new memoir Stripped: At the Intersection of Cancer, Culture, and Christ. On one page, I would be nodding in recognition with gratitude for such skilled descriptions of what it feels like to confront our bodily frailties, and how powerfully the Christian faith speaks to our suffering. A few pages later, I would be annoyed by preachy diatribes against people who criticize the Catholic Church or overly broad critiques of our medical system. The author’s fluctuating tone was perplexing and fascinating; Stripped was maddening at times, but also rich, real, and superbly written.

BC_Stripped_1King, a Catholic memoirist who has told bits of her life story in several previous books, begins with a breast cancer diagnosis that came after decades of treating her body “firmly and without emotion, the way you would a dependable tractor.” A recovering alcoholic, King was well aware of her psychological, emotional and spiritual wounds. When she quit drinking, she became a Catholic after an experience in which she “simply knew that in the depths of my soul was the truth, and that truth was Christ.” When one becomes Catholic, she writes, “you come awake into the self you were born to be, and the truly good news is that it turns out not to be any such air-brushed thing as ‘healthy’ or ‘balanced’ or ‘sane.’”

But she had never dealt with physical shortcomings. With the cancer diagnosis, King “entered a land in which the only area where I had ever been well had been stripped away.”

After getting a diagnosis of “invasive ductal carcinoma,” King looked up what those terms mean in Our Bodies, Ourselves and, concluded that “I have the worst kind of cancer you can have!” She later realized, after additional research, that “instead of being a peculiarly grim strain, invasive ductal [breast cancer] was a humdrum condition accounting for 75 percent of all breast cancer cases.” This anecdote was my introduction to King’s habit of overstatement, easier to take when it concerns her own condition (people who have just gotten a cancer diagnosis are certainly allowed to panic) than when she turns to other people’s attitudes and opinions.

King is capable of great humility about her own faults (“I’d never focused on what was wrong with the Church. I’d focused on the miracle that she’d taken in a wretch like me”) and about her decision not to pursue any cancer treatment beyond a lumpectomy to remove the cancerous cells. This decision left her doctor sputtering and confused, and King basking in a sense of freedom and gratitude. She is careful not to turn the book into a manifesto calling all cancer patients to tear out their IVs and walk out of the radiation room. She makes clear that her particular cancer gave her decent odds for recovery in any case, and that, “Someone else would have come—rightly—to a different decision.”

But interspersed with measured passages like those describing her decision to refuse further treatment are wallops of Catholic triumphalism and anti­–medical­-establishment bluster that I found hard to read, and hard to reconcile with King’s more nuanced tone elsewhere.

For example, King defends the Roman Catholic practice of withholding Eucharist from non-Catholics by describing those who decry this practice as those for whom “the cracker means nothing” —which fails to describe the millions of non-Catholic Christians or searching souls who may not be sure what the Eucharist means but sense that it offers something that they can’t get anywhere else, who are still excluded at the altar. Passages rejecting abortion and euthanasia as “shortcuts to avoid suffering” included some insights with which I would heartily agree, such as, “You can’t annihilate suffering; you can only share in it. You can only try to refrain from contributing to it.” And yet, her moralizing tone and failure to really connect these sections to her own story—she shares elsewhere that she had several abortions before her Catholic conversion—made them feel less like thoughtful meditations stemming from her experience of illness and more like opportunities to reinforce her world view.

Likewise, King undermines the care with which she describes her decision to refuse treatment with broad criticisms of medication and the doctors who prescribe it. According to King, for example, birth control pills came from the hands of “medical gods” who announced, “Oh, look, here’s something to make life easier, a handy little birth-control tablet!” A few pages later, she asks, “Who, more than men out for uncommitted sex, stood to benefit from women taking birth-control pills and morning-after pills?” Thinking of women in developing nations for whom reliable birth control lessens the very real risks of near-constant pregnancy and childbirth, from fistulae to babies born blind due to their mothers’ sexually transmitted diseases to death, I wrote WOMEN, underlined and with an exclamation point, in the margin. I could also have written ME.

In another passage, King portrays modern medicine as violent and invasive, comparing medical providers with Carrie Nation battering down saloon doors with a hatchet. In explaining why she has never sought professional psychological help, King writes, “Psychiatry wanted to treat alcoholism with pills, chemicals, clinicians, and therapies; the way I’d found [via AA] was simple, personal, free….” That is no doubt true. But I couldn’t help thinking of mounting evidence that we have a proven power to deter heroin overdoses by treating recovering addicts with medication. Yet addicts in early recovery are still dying from overdoses because of the entrenched notion that 12-step programs are always better than pills, that medicine is a shortcut for those who don’t want to do the hard work of personal transformation. That medication is foisted on weak-willed patients by doctors and drug companies with skewed priorities is an attitude I’m all too familiar with due to my own reliance on opioid pain medication to function. And while many readers, myself included, will be sympathetic to King’s desire not to seek help only to be given prescriptions that she doesn’t want, that desire doesn’t explain why she couldn’t seek help from a psychologist or clinical social worker, who can’t legally prescribe.

These passages disappointed me because I loved so much of the rest of Stripped.

I love that King refuses to call herself a “survivor” because that’s “too plucky and gung ho for me”—which is exactly how I feel about the term, having been treated for my own bout of breast cancer four years ago. I love that King considers “pondering an essential and vitally important activity,” ordering her life with an “instinctive protection for a psyche I knew was hardwired for solitude versus a world that tends to view the introvert as strange, selfish and antisocial.” I love her meditations on the writing life: “To write in the face of the suffering of the world that seemed to cry out for action; to write when it sometimes seemed my work wasn’t bearing fruit; to write because I believed writing, like prayer, to be a good in and of itself, was an ongoing challenge.”

As King ponders her ultimate decision about treatment, she asks, “Was going against medical advice passion, or was it pathology? Was it obedience, or was it insanity?” This is a core question for anyone living a life of faith, of emotional and psychological honesty, in which we strive to be true to God and the person God made us to be. Are we motivated by a true desire to follow God’s lead, or by our own warped thinking? King concludes that, “If I could not undertake the recommended treatment without feeling that I was doing violence to myself, then for me—not necessarily for anyone else, but for me—the toward-God action was to go against medical advice.” This is the King I like, the King who sticks to her own story, and tells it honestly, humbly, and beautifully instead of making sweeping statements about how other people have gotten things all wrong.

Toward the end of Stripped, King writes, “I do not view my cancer as a lesson or a blessing or a gift; I view my cancer as a mystery.” This is precisely what I’ve written about my life with a broken and painful body, though I tend to use the word “paradox” instead of “mystery.” Throughout much of Stripped, King applies her considerable talent to penning words that get as close to testifying to that mystery as words can get. While I suggest bringing along a few grains of salt to help a few troubling passages get down, this book is a beautiful read. The “cancer memoir” is almost a cliché, because so many people have attempted it. Stripped is the real deal; as all good memoirs do, it rises above the particulars of the writer’s life to raise questions and mull over truths that matter to all of us trying to live a life that is fundamentally healthy and whole, which may or may not involve trying to cure all that ails us.

This post is part of a Patheos Book Club Roundtable Discussion. 

 

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