The only thing worse than everyone feeling sorry for you when you are suffering, when you are dying, is the horror that no one will really care.
Illness, grief and embarrassment have a confusing but symbiotic relationship. There is a reason cancer used to be a thing people kept secret, sometimes even from their children. In our tell-all age, this can seem baffling to most, but for some people, there is still something deeply humiliating about being sick, about the sense that their bodies have failed or betrayed them combined with the change in their social identity that comes with other people perceiving them as weakened or—worst of all for some of us—the terror that we will be pitied.
A couple of weeks ago, the controversy-courting writer Elizabeth Wurtzel published an Op-Ed in The Guardian entitled “I have cancer. Don’t tell me you’re sorry.” In this piece, Wurtzel does what she does best: argues an extreme position—in this case, how happy she is about having Stage IV cancer and how well it suits her rebel girl personality—so as to inflame and annoy people and get them talking about, duh, her, precisely as I am doing right now. As Wurtzel once said of her writing, in a Jezebel interview, “It’s controversial or no one notices.” Perhaps a better tagline for online culture could scarcely be found, and no matter what one thinks of Wurtzel, her writing, or her posturing, it would be difficult to refute that we are living in a culture where extreme positions and shock jocks get the most attention.
As Wurtzel no doubt wanted, her piece was met with a fair amount of outrage; friends texted it to me indignantly and my Facebook feed was overflowing with people who have had cancer or lost loved ones to cancer feeling appalled, in particular at Wurtzel’s narcissistic, judgmental proclamation “Yes, I know: most people are not happy about cancer. Shame on most people. You have a choice about how you see everything that happens to you.”
This statement, of course, overlooks just about everything in the world about empathy, subjectivity, and perspective. It overlooks that Wurtzel is enormously economically privileged and has access to the best in healthcare (including having used a cold cap to prevent hair loss from chemotherapy, and being on the most cutting edge cancer defying drug on the market, Ibrance, which costs about 10-12K per month and is inaccessible to most people, although aid programs do exist). It overlooks that Wurtzel does not have young children whose bereavement might mean more to her than her own bad girl publicity. It overlooks that chastising people for not being delighted by their horrible misfortunes defies the most basic laws of human empathy (as I sarcastically wrote on a friend’s wall, “I hear being deported is all the rage too! Why are people such whiners?”)
Taken alone, this part of Wurtzel’s essay is pretty indefensible, and it is not at all unfair if this alone causes many to block her out entirely as an entitled posturing asshole who is saying cruel things for attention, at best, and at worst is doing all of the above plus wearing her delusional denial of her own situation like a garish party dress everyone can see except her: an Emperor’s New Clothes in reverse.
Forgive me, therefore, if I now admit that Wurtzel got me thinking. A lot.
When I learned that I was miscarrying in 2005, one of the most overwhelming emotions I felt was the dread of having to tell people and face their reactions. I had been infertile for my entire adult life, and only once I’d announced my pregnancy to family and friends had I learned how, apparently, sorry for me many of them had been for years. Although I had two healthy and amazing adopted children, a weird plethora of people had reacted to the news of my pregnancy by doing things like literally shouting “Thank God!” and “It’s a miracle!” as though I had been depressed for a decade because of the failure of my loins to bear fruit. It was only once I had seemingly joined the Breeder’s Club that the other breeders ripped off their masks and told me what they really thought of my infertility, and how apparently inadequately they had viewed my body, my life, and my children prior to this redeeming pregnancy.
Now that I had lost the pregnancy, I was going to have to tell all of these very same people that I was not part of their Club after all, and then somehow…move forward…with the veil lifted on their longstanding pity, now magnified because I had committed the grievous error of daring to openly want and openly hope, only to have these open desires dashed.
While I should have been furious (and yes, I was), the truth is that I was also so embarrassed at being an Object of Public Pity that for quite some time, it blocked my ability to even grieve having lost my would-be third child. For months, maybe years, I worked overtime at pity-blocking people, countering their sympathy with the insistence that I already had children and that I was just fine and that the miscarriage was No Big Deal. I protested to the point that it must have looked like I was some sociopath who had barely noticed miscarrying at all. When, my body not even able to expel the pregnancy successfully such that my back went out and I couldn’t walk but still the fetus would not come out, I went in for a D&C, the nurse about to assist in the procedure expressed her sorrow that I had lost my baby, my OBGyn barked in her thick New York accent, “It was three weeks ago, she’s over it!” In retrospect this seems an insane and heartless thing for a doctor to have said, however, my own perspective was so warped by shame and repressed sadness that I wanted to hug her for not allowing a random nurse to pity me or witness my private grief.
What is so terrible about being pitied? Well, clearly to many people, absolutely nothing. Now, as a breast cancer survivor myself (though I was early stage, whereas Wurtzel is now Stage IV, so I am no authority on what she is facing), I am highly aware that there are entire cancer-centered organizations that don’t seem to understand my pity allergy at all. They bear names like Y Me, externally validating the self-pity we all may at least initially struggle with when life kicks our asses. They don’t shirk at the idea of publicly asserting that something shitty has happened to them, and that they are upset about it—as Wurtzel herself did in earlier interviews and essays about her cancer, calling it at the very least “annoying” and asserting that “I would have preferred to skip this. That would have been much better.”
Um…no shit. Yep. With you there, Wurtzel.
What, then, happened? Did Wurtzel, since the time of these seemingly sensible statements, have some wild, near-death epiphany not available to those of us peons who are still more firmly situated on this side of the veil? I doubt it. As she herself has said in the past: “Heaven forbid you think this makes you a better person. If all this stuff doesn’t make you a worse person—I mean, it’s very annoying. How could it not make you annoyed? If I don’t come out of this a worse person, what’s wrong with me?” OK, then.
Yes, Wurtzel seems to be doing her best to prove that she has indeed come out of her ordeal as a “worse person.” So, if it’s not that she has become a fearless guru, has Wurtzel just lost her mind, as many who cite her long-documented mental health issues claim? Is she in denial? Well, that seems off to me, too. Wurtzel seems less “crazy” than desperately defiant. She once wrote in Thought Catalog, “Sometimes, maybe even a lot, I say things that are ridiculous. Sometimes I am ridiculous. There are worse things.” Again, there are worse things than being ridiculous, absolutely. But are there worse things than cruelly kicking those who are already down? Perhaps not. Why, then, is Wurtzel being such a dick about other cancer patients and those who feel badly for/about them? Is she terrified to die and just defensively spewing things?
I have never met Elizabeth Wurtzel. But if she claims she is cool with her own cancer situation, I am not here to dispute her. Wurtzel and her expensive pills (though in fairness I feel the need to point out that she wore a $200 dress to her wedding—that being able to afford expensive medicine doesn’t itself make you a materialistic asshole) may well out-survive plenty of people without cancer, and plus, not everyone is afraid to die. Some people may not even fear suffering, or at least a certain whitewashed form of suffering, wherein you know you will do it in a sanitized room surrounded by friends, medical professionals, and the best pain treatment money can buy.
Like Wurtzel, I entered my cancer full of what in this country amounts to unusual privilege: health insurance that covered basically everything, anywhere I wanted to go. It paid for second opinions at Cedars-Sinai, for genetic testing, and Oncotype and Mammaprint follow-ups to the original pathology report. I was often given a private room when I went for chemo—the same private room my best girlfriend had received chemo in four years prior, before dying anyway.
What I want to say clearly is that no amount of economic privilege can make cancer “safe” or fun or a luxury, and that middle class and wealthy people also get blindingly sick, crawl to the toilet, go into premature menopause, contract neutropenia, get gaping sores in their mouths that prevent them from tasting food. But they do not wonder how they will feed themselves amidst said inability to taste food, or whether they will soon be crawling to the communal bathroom of a shelter due to being bankrupt from medical bills. It would be cruel to imply that somehow money can make cancer “easy,” but it is equally cruel to act as though we do all have equal choices of how we see what is happening to us, as Wurtzel claims.
By the time I was diagnosed with cancer in late 2015, I knew myself better than I had during my miscarriage. Cancer—losing my breasts and my hair; developing lymphedema and a limp from osteoarthritis after chemo ate my left hip—would teach me still more. One consistent lesson I have hammered over my own head in every time of adversity is that I have a deep need to be seen as anything but weak. Is this also true of Wurtzel? If so, then even Monstrous can, through a certain painful lens, seem the comforting opposite of weak. And though Wurtzel proudly proclaims early in her essay that she is “the original Mean Girl” (how sad a claim to fame this is, I hope, goes without intricate deconstruction), the truth is that in our cultural unconscious, Monstrous is also male. It is powerful; it is the thing that inspires fear. It knocks the walls of our own fear down by masking it with the fear of others.
Wurtzel’s aversion to weakness—and her oft-vocalized fear of invisibility and need to be constantly seen, scrutinized, judged, discussed—smack of a stereotypically “masculine” lack of compassion and facile bootstrap mentality. The possibly-terminal cancer patient shaming others for not being tickled about their suffering—for not seeing it “correctly”—hits me as tragically analogous to the young boy who witnesses his mother being beaten his entire youth and tries to protect her, only to grow up and beat his own wife. For some people, too many people—for me, at times—it can seem better to be Monstrous than to be pitiable and weak in the town square of public opinion.
If you read through various interviews and essays from the time of her early diagnosis, Wurtzel’s complex and shifting response to her illness is enough to give one philosophical whiplash—but why shouldn’t it be? Life and death are complex issues. And if “monstrosity” is male, then the fetishized theater of suffering that Wurtzel has been performing for most of her highly self-documented life is enormously associated with femininity. Illness, self-destruction, the body undone: these things have arguably always been the bad girl’s—the smart girl’s?—calling card in our popular mythology.
As we discuss in my “Women on the Verge” literature course, a survey of portrayals of women across art forms can easily lead one to conclude that the only “sane” response to our insane, woman-hating world is madness. From The Yellow Wallpaper and Anna Karenina to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton; from Camille to Lithium for Medea, from the endless French films of the 1980s and 90s that ended in female suicide to Rent; from Hausfrau to “A Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” it is clear that audiences love a sexily doomed woman. Live fast, die (kinda) young, leave a beautiful, still-long-haired corpse.
Yet for most real women, there is nothing romantic or sexy about illness. And for those women who love another human—be it a child, a spouse, a sister, a mother—as much or more than themselves, the most terrifyingly exquisite thing about love is the way it cracks us open to there being far more important things in the world not only than our own safety, but also than our own self-conscious images in the mirror. When she was first married, Wurtzel openly discussed wanting to become a mother, but having a family did not come to pass for her, for whatever private reasons the internet rarely and mercifully seems unable to provide me. Still, Wurtzel has written quite seriously about the heaviness and life-changing power of her marriage and has said, “when I love somebody, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do.” For some reason, this brought to mind the Cheryl Strayed essay “The Love of My Life,” in which Strayed writes of the astronomical gulf between the death of those we merely know and like vs. those we feel we cannot live without. Strayed writes:
Over the course of my life, I have known other people who’ve died. Some of them have died the way we hoped they would — old, content, at their time; others, the way we hoped they wouldn’t — by murder or suicide, in accidents, or too young of illnesses. The deaths of those people made me sad, afraid, and angry; they made me question the fairness of the world, the existence of God, and the nature of my own existence. But they did not make me suffer. They did not make me think, I cannot continue to live. In fact, in their deaths I felt more deeply connected to them, not because I grieved them, but because I wanted to attach myself to what is interesting…It is interesting to be able to say, I know him, to feel a part of something important and awful and big. The more connections like this we have, the more interesting we are.
Of course, Strayed is speaking self-critically; she does not literally mean that the more dead people we know, the more interesting we are, but rather critiquing and acknowledging the fact that many people seek a connection to the dramatic and claim it, without it genuinely extracting a pound of their flesh—that there is the facsimile of mourning and then there is Grief. So maybe it goes deeper. I find myself hoping that there is someone next to Wurtzel right now who would at least temporarily feel, in her absence, I cannot continue to live. But whether there is or not (because we are all a hell of a lot more complex than our attitude in an Op-Ed), her Guardian piece smacks of the self-involvement of one who has never loved or been loved in such a manner. There are worse things than dying, which we all of course must do; there are worse things than being diagnosed with cancer. Wurtzel, though privileged, has not led an “easy” life, has discussed the ways in which her depression and kicking drugs were both ultimately much worse than her cancer. “Having serious emotional problems is really hard,” she’s explained. “Insurance doesn’t cover it, nobody cares, you are not a sympathetic person at all, you’re awful. No one wants to help you…it’s the worst kind of problem to have, because you’re awful, you’re hideous. And you’re really in pain. Unbelievable pain that no one cares about, you can’t even find it in yourself to care about.” Here, then, Wurtzel taps in—perhaps somewhat unintentionally—to one of the saddest and hardest essential truths of being human: the only thing worse than everyone feeling sorry for you when you are suffering, when you are dying, is the horror that no one will really care. That our lives will be the tree falling in the woods without a sound, unwitnessed. That we are merely something “interesting” in someone else’s story. Because any preschool teacher (and Oscar Wilde) can tell you, negative attention—the kind we get by hurling insults at vast numbers of sick people we have never met on the internet—is better than no attention at all.
“I love being controversial, because that’s the closest you get to everyone agreeing with you—the other choice is no one is paying attention.” I have never, prior to the Guardian piece in which Wurtzel wrote these words, read her work or spent 20 seconds thinking about her. Now, I have spent my weekend poring over her old interviews and essays. Mission accomplished. Yet that Wurtzel is an attention whore is hardly a revelation. What has surprised me more is how, upon each further fall down the rabbit hole of her essay, I find myself realizing that, if you cut back on some of her obnoxiousness, she is also circling the drain of ideas that are controversial for a reason. Yes, people can indeed lack perspective. We do often treat getting sick in middle class middle age on par with the tragedy of starving children or genocide, with a narcissistic equality of suffering, with, the proverbial “why me.” People commonly talk about losing faith in god only after they get sick, as though centuries of tsunamis and wars and plagues never counted until it impacted them, their spouses, their children.
What Wurtzel taps into deeply is the vibrancy of living in the moment for as long as we can, staring down the barrel of the gun with swagger and a sassy gratitude devoid of platitudes and piety. What Wurtzel is also doing, and what needs to be done, is emancipating the Sick Woman from her role as a tragic heroine haloed by soft lights—what she is saying, between the lines of everything else, is: I am still me. This may prove to be a temporary luxury. Few of us get to exit the world swaggering, and for most people who ultimately die of cancer there is pain, there is wasting away, there can be the deterioration of the brain as toxin buildup renders a once electric intellect flat-lined and dependent on others. Perhaps Wurtzel intends to get off the train voluntarily before reaching such a place, as I sometimes think I would, and as should be everyone’s right.
What I know: I, too, am not “sorry” I had cancer; I, too, don’t want to snap my fingers and return to Sontag’s other country, surrendering my passport to the present moment and the person I am now, who has been shaped by all my life experiences and is, like Wurtzel says she is, excited to be alive. Does that mean I am happy that I had cancer or that I would, preposterously, celebrate if it came back? Obviously the differences between these two truths are too vast to document. Maybe Wurtzel can see these differences clearly and maybe she can’t. What I hope for her, this stranger who has shared some marginally overlapping Venn Diagram of my experience, is that she truly will swagger her way offstage when the time comes. A diva enjoys making an exit almost as much as making an entrance, and I wish her an electric one—a long, long time from now.
Gina Frangello’s fourth book of fiction, Every Kind of Wanting, was released on Counterpoint in September 2016, has been optioned by Universal Cable Productions/Denver & Delilah, and was included on several “best of” lists for 2016, including in Chicago Magazine and The Chicago Review of Books. Her last novel, A Life in Men (Algonquin 2014), was selected for the Target Emerging Authors series, was also optioned by Universal Cable Productions/Denver & Delilah, and was a book club selection for NYLON magazine, The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown. She is also the author of two other books of fiction: Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press 2010), which was a Foreword Magazine Best Book of the Year finalist, and My Sister’s Continent (Chiasmus 2006). She has nearly 20 years of experience as an editor, having founded both the independent press Other Voices Books, and the fiction section of the popular online literary community The Nervous Breakdown. She has also served as the Sunday editor for The Rumpus, the Executive Editor for Other Voices magazine, and the faculty editor for TriQuarterly Online. Her short fiction, essays, book reviews and journalism have been published in such venues as Salon, Dame, Ploughshares, the Boston Globe, BuzzFeed, the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post, Fence, FiveChapters, Prairie Schooner, the Chicago Reader, and in many other magazines and anthologies. www.ginafrangello.org