3.04.2005

Editors' note: Paula Kamen will be guest-blogging at the Cupcake blog on Fridays this month.

A 'SICK LIT' MANIFESTO
"I am woman, hear me kvetch."
By Paula Kamen

First, as your guest cupcake blogger during Fridays in March, let me state my objectives here as plainly as possible. No hidden agendas. Only unabashedly open agendas.

As you might expect, during my time here, I hope to serve as a Chicago literary correspondent, report about some splendid books I've picked up lately without huge corporate PR machineries behind them, and, needless to say, shamelessly promote my own new book, All in My Head, every chance I get.
 
But, more importantly, I'm on a mission to recognize an entire emerging genre of "sick lit." 
       
(Please do not confuse this with that other genre of chick lit. Mine involves less late-night eating of chocolate-chip dough and fewer couched Jane Austen references.)
         
"Sick lit," as I've termed it, is women fighting shame and isolation through telling their stories about "invisible" illness. Sometimes in a literary way, sometimes through memoir, sometimes with reporting added (like yours truly).
   
Some examples of what I'm talking about:

· Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation on depression in 1994. A groundbreaker.

· Lizzie Simon's Detour: My Bipolar Roadtrip in 4-D, from 2002

· Seabisquit author Laura Hillenbrand on her chronic fatigue syndrome in her 2003 New Yorker essay.

· Susanna Kaysen discussing vaginal pain (vulvodynia) in The Camera My Mother Gave Me(2001).

· On a less literary note, I'd incluce Jane Pauley discussing bipolar disorder in a new book (although I'd automatically assume that anyone perky enough to host a morning TV show is bipolar, and that would not be a major revelation).

· Hell, I'm no snob. I'd even add Marie Osmond and Brooke Shields to that about postpartum depression.

Of course, I have some doubts in even bringing up this topic. I'm sure that like with other genres, some writers here are weaker and more self-indulgent than others. Some suck, in fact. And a book is NOT necessarily "good" just because it contains a personal health revelation. And I do recognize the danger of any genre (like black studies, lesbian studies, chick lit, etc) to marginalize a good writer, especially a more literary one. Actually, I'd like to be recognized as a "good writer" with this book, rather than a political activist.
      
Then why take this risk of even discussing "sick lit"?
       
I see this genre as relevant to recognize and validate a greater Third Wave (postboomer feminism) phenomenon, something you wouldn't have seen even 20 years ago, of women "coming out" out about illness. They see it as a fact of life, as part of the diversity of humans -- and less about something that reveals a deviant "moral weakness" of theirs. And we need this type of openness to relieve the isolation of individual women, and then help everyone else see their stake in this issue, to organize for better treatment and research.
      
In contrast, until now, we've had good reason not to talk about such neurological dirty laundry. Thirty years ago, during the height of the Second Wave of feminism, we had pressure to always "be strong"--thereby countering centuries of propaganda against women that they were ONLY weak and pathetic (and so they don't deserve to vote or go to college). A major drive in the 1970s was to prove women as physically strong, such as able to play sports like hero Billie Jean King, or able to go through childbirth without major medical procedures. "I am woman, hear me roar!" was the motto.

But, this single-minded focus on women's bodies as "truth" ignored a major reality, that women are more likely to have chronic pain (and fatigue). Some of that is indeed a result of the environment (like the stress of handling Mr. Patriarchy and being in a repetitive job like data entry)--but it's also partly neurological.  This has been shown in recent years by very advanced and fancy types of brain scans, like PET scans and functional MRIs. We have "proof" now.

In reality, as I was very surprised to find out while researching my own book, pain is a women's issue. Women have more intense pain, more frequent pain, and are more likely to have pain in multiple places on the body. Most pain disorders are mainly suffered by women, including migraine, chronic daily headache (my thing), fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, TMJ, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome(pots), and other disorders with very unappealing names.  But because they are neurological (and invisible) they have all taken on shameful meanings as mainly psychosomatic. (Thanks, Freud.) Like, Susanna Kaysen would NEVER have talked about vaginal pain before 10 years ago because of all the sexual meanings attached to it; in talking about her pain she would have been basically broadcasting the world the message: "I have sexual hangups!"

So now I'm on a mission to frame chronic pain and fatigue (women's physical weaknesses) as a Third Wave issue, just like other "unPC" topics--like not belittling "the feminine" (wearing lipstick, baking, nail polish, knitting, etc.), acknowledging sisterhood as not always transcendant  (as discussed in Woman's Inhumanity to Woman, Queen Bees and Wannabes, Odd Girl Out), and the sexual (bisexuality, the transgendered, using porn, being in porn).

And this mission, believe it or not, is mainly non-ideological. Our bodies and sexual preferences, after all, don't necessarily always follow politics of who we should be. That's a major Third Wave point, right there. And 40 years after the start of the modern women's movement, we're in a stronger and more secure place to talk about these issues. We know that we have the right to be human (flawed, just like men), and still deserve equal rights. We're neither hysterics (as the sexists said) nor wonder women (as the feminists have said). After all, as I just found out, the actress who played Wonder Woman on TV, Lynda Carter, herself has come out with chronic pain!

(I also want to clarify that I'm not saying that ALL women are weak, being as reductive as your typical Harvard president. There is tremendous variation, and men have their disproportiate share of other problems, like being autistic, schizophrenic, homicidal, suicidal, alcoholic, etc.)

More soon, in less propaganda-like form, about my journey to "come out" with chronic pain, which has just begun with my tour, that started yesterday (May 3) at Women and Children First in Chicago.
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