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The Summer of Her Baldness

[ Biography/Memoir ]

The Summer of Her Baldness

A Cancer Improvisation

By Catherine Lord

In this irreverent and moving memoir, Lord draws on the e-mail correspondence of her online persona Her Baldness to offer an unconventional look at life with breast cancer and the societal space occupied by the seriously ill.

2004

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Paperback

7 x 10 | 247 pp. | 49 illustrations

ISBN: 978-0-292-70257-8

"No eyebrows. No eyelashes. When it rains the water will run straight down into my eyes," Catherine Lord wrote before her hair fell out during chemotherapy. Propelled into an involuntary performance piece occasioned by the diagnosis of breast cancer, Lord adopted the online persona of Her Baldness—an irascible, witty, polemical presence who speaks candidly about shame and fear to her listserv audience. While Lord suffers from unwanted isolation and loss of control as her treatment progresses, Her Baldness talks back to the society that stigmatizes bald women, not to mention middle-aged lesbians with a life-threatening disease.

In this irreverent and moving memoir, Lord draws on the e-mail correspondence of Her Baldness to offer an unconventional look at life with breast cancer and the societal space occupied by the seriously ill. She photographs herself and the rooms in which she negotiates her disease. She details the clash of personalities in support groups, her ambivalence about Western medicine, her struggles to maintain her relationship with her partner, and her bemusement when she is mistaken for a "sir." She uses these experiences—common to the one-in-eight women who will be diagnosed at some point with breast cancer—to illuminate larger issues of gender signifiers, sexuality, and the construction of community.

  • June 2001 (Looking Backward: Confessions of Her Baldness)
  • May/June 2000
  • July 2000
  • August 2000
  • September 2000
  • October 2000
  • November 2000
  • December 2000
  • January 2001
  • February 2001
  • March 2001
  • April 2001
  • May 2001
  • March 2003 (A Letter to Her Baldness)

Friday, June 1, 2001
In a message dated 6/1/01 cblord@spam.edu writes to undisclosed recipients:
SUBJECT: LOOKING BACKWARD (CONFESSIONS OF HER BALDNESS)

On my computer, the name of this list serv, Her Baldness's own privately maintained and preciously guarded list serv, is FOCL'SRB. It started small—just the people I could squeeze into the phrase "friends and family." Her Baldness added to the list from time to time, in return for acts of kindness that happened as the news of my breast cancer traveled—a call, a postcard, a book propped by her front door, an email. Her Baldness also subtracted. She got mad at people for not being there, or not being there as much as she wanted, or not giving her feedback, much as she loathed the word, or, conversely, giving her feedback, regurgitating what she didn't want to see and telling her what she never wanted to hear about. Some people restored themselves to her good graces. Some people were deleted forever. Occasionally, when Her Baldness put things in her missives that might have embarrassed her in front of certain people, she deleted those people until she had stopped talking about them and the coast was clear. Her Baldness had her petty moments. She was manipulative and she could be vindictive. She whined. Not only had she caught cancer but she had contracted the two most common symptoms of cancer: Unwanted Aloneness and Loss of Control. Instead of being angry at her cancer, or the idea of cancer, or evolution, or the medical profession, or industrial polluters, or state misogyny, or advanced capitalism, she got mad at people she knew. It's easier to get mad at people than it is to get mad at cancer, and easier still to get mad at them by committing acts of mingy bureaucracy, even if you yourself have invented the entire feeble apparatus in a technologically amplified moment of rage and terror.

Her Baldness made up this list to put the telling in her voice, to warn people to stay away from pity, to be remembered because she thought she might die. She made up this list so that she could be strong and proud and brave and full of energy and motion in the middle of the desolation that is cyberspace, even if she hated how she looked and it took pretty much all she had sometimes to get down the stairs to the computer in her studio and stay there. She made up this list because people are not perfect. They give what they can. Sometimes they cannot afford much, and in times of crisis, even when people are lavish it does not feel like enough. Her Baldness figured that her miserable bald wobbly pale being could not expect to have sympathy pour in like water from the tap. She made up this list in order to have a place in which to write. She made up this list to create the people for whom she wanted to write. She made up this list because she needed an audience in order to stay alive. She plucked an audience out of thin air. Having done so, she played it shamelessly. She sang for her supper. She danced for her dinner. She stripped for sympathy. She posted her fear. She got off on the fact that all sorts of people were on the list and that none of the undisclosed recipients knew for certain the identity of any of the other undisclosed recipients. The highest compliment she received was archival in nature: "I save all your emails. I have numbered them." The second highest compliment she received was larcenous in nature: the (generally unauthorized) gesture of forwarding her emails to other people.

If I had accepted the prescription offered when my oncologist informed me that my insurance would cover chemo-induced alopecia, I would have gotten a piece of paper entitling me to a free cranial prosthesis, otherwise known as a wig, and Her Baldness would never have had to be invented. Her Baldness was another approach to the design of prosthetic devices, an honorific fabricated to point to the fact of mortality while at the same time waving at the colors of the sunset, a strategy designed to flaunt and to conceal. Her Baldness was a contradiction in terms, a loudmouth and a smokescreen, an avatar and a mask.

We had, Her Baldness and I, a conflicted relationship. At all times conscious of each other's intent and each other's strategy, we couldn't take our eyes off each other, so sometimes we didn't see the love we thought was missing when it was coming straight at us. We covered for each other. We used each other. We had no room for other people, even though we thought that pulling other people into our world was the point of the game. We had our roles, Her Baldness and I. Doubtless those roles had something to do with gender, among other possibilities, but it is not clear, even in retrospect, now that Her Baldness is in a state of hibernation, whether the man of the house caught cancer or the femme between the sheets. Whatever Her Baldness and I were doing, we switched off.

Her Baldness talked big, and Her Baldness talked a lot. Her other half, regrettably, was by no means bald and proud and loud. I myself never managed to go out of the house without a hat when I believed I was bald, though I did so when my hair was still so short that other people congratulated me on my courage for showing myself bald, thus making me feel even worse about my incurable shame and transparent cowardice. Her Baldness, on the other hand, though she spouted a good line, had places she would not go. She also had times, particularly she was muddling her way through the minefield of getting well, that she could not pull herself out of her depression and write. Neither could I. Thus, there are holes in our collaboration. Huge holes. We are not holding out on you. Also, we contradicted ourselves and occasionally we lost our sense of irony. We didn't say thank you with much grace and sometimes we forgot altogether.

Some of you have asked how Her Baldness got started. What you are fishing for is not more information about the day my hair lost the battle and Her Baldness launched herself into the void like Yves Klein (who, after all, faked the photograph) or Thelma and Louise (who couldn't be allowed to live in America) or the postqueer hacker cyber assassin I wish I were (though that woman is younger, hasn't caught cancer yet, and has more energy than I do). You want to know about the moment when the woman who became Her Baldness in what she now prefers to describe as an involuntary performance piece learned that her life had changed. But in this narrative as in all others, it is a distraction and an impediment to think about a single moment of origin. It suggests something that could be repaired or rethought or restrung. You cannot find one single moment, however, when soft innocent tissue went wrong and turned into a monster that will grow unchecked until it bleeds its host to death. It is not a question of where you were when Kennedy was shot, if you are my age, but of considering where you were when Jackie died and remembering why.

There are, nonetheless, moments that are part of the story. It is both hard and unnecessary to choose between them. I shuffle them to emphasize that there is no hierarchy.

There was the day the gynecologist said she wasn't worried because the lump was mobile and she was sure it was just a cyst, so much so that she had to restrain herself from draining it on the spot. I asked her recently whether she was lying to me to give me a better week before the mammogram could be scheduled. No, she said, with some indignation, no, absolutely not. I don't entirely believe her.

There was the mammogram. Three retakes by Carlaloyce, who didn't know how she happened into her job, she never wanted to have a job that caused so many people discomfort with all the squishing and poking, but there it is, life is funny, she'd lost several members of her family to breast cancer and she needed to do this. The trouble is, Carlaloyce said, people get so mad at me when something comes out wrong. They yell and yell, but it's not my fault. That was another moment.

There was Natasha in ultrasound. Natasha was not chatty. Natasha called in the radiologist. They used a lot of blue goo. What's up? I asked. Don't talk to me right now, he said. I need to concentrate. That was another moment.

It took an entire box of giant medical kleenex to get the goo off. I felt like a porn movie extra. I got dressed and wandered the hallway. (Wrong. Women are supposed to stay in their cubicles until released by the proper authorities.) I bumped into the radiologist by accident. We need to talk, he said. The architect had apparently forgotten to design a room in which to deliver bad news, so the radiologist borrowed an office and moved someone's lunch off the desk chair. All the lumps are cysts but one and that lump, at twelve o'clock on your right breast, look here on the film, you can see, is a solid mass of one and a half centimeters. You need to get it biopsied. I advise you to take care of it immediately. That's another perfectly good moment.

There was the morning in April, sitting in the bathtub, when I soaped my breasts and my hand slid over a hardness that hadn't been there before. Another one.

There was the news of the biopsy report. Friday, May 26, 2000, on the 710 north, at about 4:30 in the afternoon, driving home to Los Angeles with my friend Annie after a long day teaching. Memorial Day weekend. I knew I couldn't wait for the results until Tuesday. I had called the surgeon's office at least four times. When I got through to Marcie the office manager she said the lump was suspicious. Do you want to talk to the surgeon? YES. So she patched me through to Dr. Phillips, presumably driving to a better location in a better car on a better freeway. It's true that the lab report doesn't use the word malignant, he said, they never do, but when they say suspicious it's 99% sure it's cancer. You can get another opinion, but this is a non-controversial course of action and I would advise you to schedule a lumpectomy and a sentinel node biopsy as soon as possible.

A footnote. When Her Baldness was a girl, growing up in the Caribbean on the island of Dominica, she didn't go to school at the usual age. Due to the combination of her resourcefulness and the extreme dysfunction of her family, no one noticed until she arrived in the classroom of a boarding school at the age of nine that she was severely nearsighted. When she got her first pair of glasses, she was astonished to learn that you could from a distance see the leaves she knew to be upon the trees and the waves she knew to make up the sea and the clouds she knew brought the rain she felt upon her skin. Until that moment, she believed that the rest of the world had either more memory or more imagination than she did, so that when, for example, they said, look over there at the hill to see the flowers on the tulip tree or look at the white caps out there by Scott's Head or look at the clouds coming in over Trois Pitons they had themselves walked to the tulip tree and returned to discuss among themselves what they remembered, or had gotten up early in the morning to take a boat to Scott's Head, or had agreed among themselves to speak about the wetness they felt on their skins by discussing things that were invisible in the blue above her head. She had misunderstood everything, especially the lightness of memory and the weight of voice. These would be lessons that she would have to learn over and over again.

 

Catherine Lord is Professor of Studio Art at the University of California at Irvine.

"Lord has written a page-turner, a wonderfully compelling narrative with a host of fascinating characters in an original voice and with a vibrant, laugh-out-loud wit. Not only is it funny, wise, and moving, it is also thoroughly smart, political, and powerful."

—David Roman, Professor of English, University of Southern California

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