Review of The Camera My Mother Gave Me, by Susanna Kaysen
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/25/05
Susanna Kaysen is not a bilious feminazi, although she is a feminist. This is good, and manifests itself the most in the humorous bent of her writing. I was positively surprised that her famed 1993 memoir Girl, Interrupted, was not only a good book, but a daring one in its use of form. recently, I read her 2001 memoir about her middle-aged sexual dysfunction, The Camera My Mother Gave Me, and while not as daring as the earlier book it still made for a quick and rather delightful read. It is novella length, at most, and chronicles Kaysenís 1990s bout with sexual dysfunction, brought about by the effects of a long ago operation to remove a cyst from her vulva.
Now, in the hands of a typical feminist, save Camille Paglia, the book would have been awash in self pity or veered off into a power tirade that somehow blamed ten thousand years of patriarchal oppression for her twatís ache. Fortunately, while Kaysen is not in sync with Paglia, she does have considerable truck with feminist writer and critic Daphne Merkin, of The New Yorker fame. Both women know how to laugh at themselves, although Kaysen is probably the more literarily minded of the two.
Over the course of a few years, as she is menopausing, Kaysen finds that her vagina is constantly in pain from vestibulitis, as if Ďa little dentist drilling a little holeí, and she is forced by circumstance and her own stupidity, to go to series of incompetent doctors, herbalists, and biofeedbackists, that can do nothing to ease her pain. She refuses the treatment with the highest chance of success- an operation to remove the scar tissue, because she puts her faith in Internet claims, rather than her admittedly stolid doctor. This sort of creeping masochism is a carryover from the earlier memoir, and obviously a bane in Kaysenís life. For, without the operation her condition deteriorates, and eventually she is forced to break up with her sex obsessed, and emotionally oblivious boyfriend. That a fiftysomething woman is still attracted to such an obvious loser is an aspect of her persona that Kaysen could have devoted more time to, but once we take that as a given her sexual misadventures are actually humorous- especially the event that is the final straw between her and her beau. When he literally tries to get her to have sex by trying to smear a gob of cortisone cream on her pussy.
Once he leaves, though, Kaysen starts to heal, and feels that it has all been psychosomatic. She then makes a desperate sexual play for a man twenty plus years her junior, only to be rebuffed, and fall weeping back into the arms of her several friends and confidantes. This is probably where she is at her best- in her vivid reconstructions of her many conversations with the medical experts, her beau, and her friends. It is akin to a Woody Allen film laced with neurotic intellectuals who are even more pathetically inept at dealing with their lives than their blue collar counterparts. That Kaysen is so wise in describing these things after the fact but so stupid while living them- her choices in men, doctors, and refusing the obvious choice 99% of women would have made- is part of what makes for a good, light read, if not a mature life.
There are astute observations like ĎWhen eros goes away itís as if Iím colorblind. The world is gray.í, but for every one of them there is a grotesquesly absurd scene like the boyfriendís obsession with cortisone cream, and Kaysenís later silly meanderings on whether or not he raped her in his attempt, although we know it failed. as in Girl, Interrupted Kaysen is definitely an unreliable narrator, as well as terminally emotionally immature, and a reader might sense that at some level the ridiculous choices Kaysen makes are all done in service to her life as art approach. Iíve known artists who intentionally encourage Ďexcitementí in their lives by making one dumb choice after another. Then there is her stand in a chapter called Why I Am Opposed to Antidepressants that only makes sense if you have read her earlier memoir. Alone, itís merely a bizarre curio in a bizarre womanís life.
The book ends on this note:
ĎDisease is one of our languages. Doctors understand what disease has to say about itself. Itís up to the person with the disease to understand what the disease has to say to her.
My vagina keeps trying to get my attention. It has something important to say to me. I'm listening.
Iím still listening.í
Itís a bizarre ending, as well, because even though sheís written the whole book, she hasnít learned a damn thing. Itís not about her vagina, or since passed sex life, itís about how she can cope with herself, and understanding that the hysterical nature of her emotional ills, and over-emphasis on sex and her sexuality, were what probably first brought about her vaginal woes, in rebellion against her poor sexual choices in partners. In short, she spent far too much time listening to her vagina, and thatís why she has led such an unhappy life.
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