Summer of Her Baldness: A Cancer Improvisation

Review by Paul Pescador

It’s early February and the weather is rather warm. The past few weeks have been quite chilly and despite that it has been a dry year, we are finally getting some rain. On Facebook, people are doing rain dances. A hope. Something to get us out of this drought. I normally take long showers, that’s been curbed by my boyfriend who shouts at me if I have been in there for more than five minutes. The shower is a place I usually escape to, a place where I’m alone in my head, where I collect my thoughts and decompress from the day.


With the warmer weather, it’s difficult for me to sit down and write in my office, which is quite cold and low lit. I go outside instead and sit on the deck amongst the fruit trees and take in some sun. I sit there with your book, The Summer of Her Baldness. Reading your memoir that follows a year of your life with breast cancer, I ask myself who is “Her Baldness” and why does she exists? Is she an avatar you created to funnel your emotions as a way to get through this? Can one escape their own body from the physical and emotional pain compounded upon it? Cancer, both an abstraction as well as a concrete illness. It’s too large to be taken on by one self. You speak about the people around you, those who can’t be there for you or others who try to be. You can’t connect with them. Even those who are also going through this as well. It’s not the same. It’s not their body. It’s not their experience.


How does one find themself in their own illness? You speak about refusing to wear a pink ribbon. How does one’s identity change because they are sick? I think of this writing as a different identity other than your own or rather an extension of it. You talk through another body. You relay experience through text. You’re angry in this writing. This is not the professor I had in grad school, who would quietly observe the situation in a critique class, keeping commentary short and sharp. Contemplative. Why shouldn’t you be angry? Your body is being poked and prodded, poisoned by chemicals just to keep you alive. And yet one has to continue to maintain one’s daily life: go to the doctor’s office, respond to students’ emails and exist in public. Your body in a public sphere is constantly being examined. Random strangers in the street stop you to tell you about their own experience with cancer. A flight attendant who mistakes you for a man, because you’re bald. Does cancer remove gender? You state that men own baldness. You would rather be mistaken as a bald man than a woman with cancer. A temporary moment that you can forget.


I keep on thinking about masking and escaping one’s identity, even if this escape is only on paper. Your character, Her Baldness, both a name as well as a visual reminder of your body. I think about Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor.” She writes about how cancer is spoken of through language of  war: “the battle with cancer,” “fighting cancer” and “cancer victims”. Through her writing she wants us to tell ourselves that this just an illness and if we can see it as just that, we can face it more directly. Though I agree with Sontag’s position of removing the power from the disease, I ask myself how can one not personify it. It’s a coping mechanism to deal with this abstract otherness. This invisible thing living inside of you, taking you apart.


Since the memoir takes place in your daily life, many members of the Los Angeles art world are mentioned through their initials. We see how each of these individuals react. From the friends who share their own family stories to the colleague who never calls you back. I realize by writing this essay, I also become another outsider to your illness. I write this because, I know that sometime in my life I will face this, if not me personally then through someone close to me. The reality of being alive. I’ve been reading Hervé Guibert’s, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, a veiled memoir about living with HIV. Guibert spends much of the earlier part of the book discussing how he chooses to discuss or not discuss his illness with his network or friends. He speaks about talking to his father on the phone and choosing not to tell him about his illness. He speaks about watching others around him as the illness spreads and gets worse for him and for them, as well as the anger he has, the loved ones who won’t be there to support him during his crisis.


How are we supposed to take care of each other when we are sick? You speak of having to emotionally support your partner coming to terms with your illness. I remember visiting your house, which now you no longer live in. I remember the vintage Fiestaware pottery, the bathroom filled to the ceiling with small found photography, and your massive library. I sat at the dinner table and watched you both eat, thinking the whole time, “they got through this.”


Everything is so visceral in the writing, from the details of when you treat yourselves to expensive cheese and the meals you crave to the oozing of sour green diarrhea. The abject of the body. The book is broken down into sections, based upon segments of time. Each begins with a photograph you have taken. The images are composed but appear causal. I imagine you carrying your camera in your bag, looking through the lens as you are waiting for a specialist or a chemo treatment. The images feel pointed as you use the medium of photography in order record and understand the situation around you.
Another form of coping.

Catherine Lord, Summer of Her Baldness: A Cancer Improvisation (Constructs Series), (University of Texas Press, 2004)


Images: Cover of Summer of Her Baldness