“there’s bound to be a ghost at the back of your closet, no matter where you live.” (the mountain goats)


I’m wearing my utility skirt today, which I found at a Goodwill store I once frequented in North Olmstead, Ohio. It’s made of this odd, silky material (polyester?) and the pattern looks like it came from an old lady’s bedspread. It’s longer on me than it would be on a regularly heighted person, and it has pockets. In these pockets right now: lipstick, tiny hair clip, keys, I-pod, pen, handkerchief.  I mention the skirt now because it’s a thing my mother and grandmother would have spotted in a store and loved, and I would have shunned, based on their affection for it. (Some things we grow into, I suppose.)

On Sunday, T and I spent an hour and a half at a bookclub meeting discussing Pink Ribbon Blues, by Gayle Sulik. The book is about pink ribbon culture and what it means for women with breast cancer,  profits and finding a cure. Sulik has an important analysis around the gender roles at work in campaigns like LiveSTRONG (the Lance Armstrong operation), and how these notions of gender get absorbed, processed and reflected back. Read it.

Part of what Sulik talks about is what it means to be part of a community of women with breast cancer, and how women build and are built these communities, which have rigorous standards for inclusion. Sulik talks to women about who took care of them while they went through chemo, surgery and recovery, whether folks rallied around them or if they were on their own.  One dude in the book club said he had trouble believing that anyone could abandon a person while they were dealing with cancer, to which I asked,“Why not?” “It just seems so cold,” he said. I was feeling pretty aggressive at this point in the discussion, for reasons which no longer seem clear to me now, but I decided not to remind him that a lot of people suck.

Another thing I’ll never know about my mother -if people actually abandoned her when she was sick, or if she shut them out. I definitely can’t remember her having other folks  in her life with breast cancer, or any other sort of cancer. I wonder what those relationships would have done for her, if they would have helped her or terrified her further.  I can’t remember if she had support that was outside of our immediate family; as far I know, she had no peers, no one else in her life with cancer, to understand her fear and isolation. It was me who went to doctor’s appointments, because my grandmother wouldn’t/couldn’t, and because I needed to hear things for myself. It seemed to me, though, that the rest of the time, she was alone. I don’t remember flowers or food or visitors or even very many phone calls, but at her funeral, there were hundreds of people.

Some of the women Sulik interviewed for the book spoke about cancer changing them for the better, which is part of the insidious nature of pink ribbon culture, having to be relentlessly optimistic about cancer’s impact on your life and yourself, lest you risk getting kicked out of the club of people who really want to survive. Maybe cancer does make some people nicer to animals and children and old people, but it makes others retreat further into themselves, become more distrustful, more paranoid, more resentful. It confirms everything you thought was awful about the world in the first place, but maybe that gives you a weird kind of peace.

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2 thoughts on ““there’s bound to be a ghost at the back of your closet, no matter where you live.” (the mountain goats)

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Chanel.

    I think you’re right that cancer happens IN LIFE, bringing out the best and the worst in ourselves and those around us. The feel good pink culture is such a narrow slice of something that is significantly more complicated. If there were more avenues to ‘get real’ about cancer, would the isolation be so strong? I don’t know. For some, maybe. I do know that many people seek out support systems outside of the pink mainstream so they don’t have to pretend to feel so “relentlessly optimist” as you mention. Cancer sucks whether it’s painted pink or any other color.

    I’m sorry about your mother.

    Gayle Sulik

  2. Shelli G. says:

    I love her last paragraph. I really relate to that. I wasn’t particularly “bubbly” before cancer, it’s sure not going to erupt from me now!

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