What a thing...

My right breast is on the (metaphorical) naughty step. Cancer came a-knocking asking if oestrogen could come out to play and my breast, without any consultation with me, said yeah, sure....

My attention was elsewhere. It never occurred to me that I would have cancer, not when I got a callback from a standard mammogram, not when they said there was a shadow, not when they said they weren't sure what the shadow was, not when it couldn't be identified through ultrasound, not when they did a biopsy, not when I was in the waiting room on biopsy results day, not when they said the surgeon was running late (why was I seeing a surgeon was the question that should have occurred), not as I walked into the consultation room, said hello, exchanged names, shook hands. It was only when I saw the mammogram picture of my breast on the computer screen with the shadow visible that it occurred.

Vessel, my new show, was opening the next day; I had chosen not to receive the results earlier as I didn't want to disrupt rehearsals. Jane (McMorrow), dearest friend and producer was with me. I was eager to get back to the theatre and as the clock ticked and the appointment time passed, I wanted to leave, come back another day but Jane * refused to let me. So I stayed and discovered we weren't in Kansas any more and no amount of clicking the heels of red shoes was going to change that.

I held off having the charmingly named 'lumpectomy' and lymph node biopsy for as long as possible to see vessel up and into Battersea Arts Centre but left it to its own devices and that of beautiful performers Angela Clerkin, Kailing Fu, Karlina Grace Paseda & Tess Agus, production manager Sean Phillips & of course Jane McMorrow, for the last week there and then re-joined the company for the final two shows in Liverpool.

My right breast now resembles a slightly deflated party balloon caught in the corner of the ceiling. The healing process is long and requires stamina. There have been astonishing levels of piercing pain; physical and emotional, there is disbelief, there is endless waiting…the two weeks before getting the all-clear for the lymph node biopsy result was interminable but all clear they were. No spread to the lymph nodes. Next year will start with a three-week-course of daily radiotherapy and the long-term need to suppress oestrogen in my body so this doesn’t happen again.

I am fortunate to be in receipt of a full scholarship to undertake a PhD in the department of Literature, Film & Theatre Studies at the University of Essex. The focus of my research is female-authored solo autobiographical performance and I am particularly interested in 'attribution' and what is or what needs to be attributable back to the female performing body on stage. There is a huge growth in female solo autobiographical performance and there is something, for me, of the 'Kardashian' in this exposing of the self and I wonder too how influenced the audience are by tropes of reality television in their response to shows that are, and are not, autobiographical? Are audiences responding to the 'art' or to the trauma narrative? Are they separable? Is the autobiographical manifestation of pain or trauma the only option now for female contemporary performers? Are we punished critically if we write & perform outside of the construct of our self? Do we have to be a visible living artifact of survival in order for audiences and critics to 'get' the work? Are we being restricted to only telling stories through the lens of ourselves? Ho hum….

So as I begin my contemplation and pondering on all this...cancer comes and I find myself needing to express myself from a very personal 'I'. I think about that, and the proposition by Annie Ernaux,** talking with Lauren Elkin in the White Review of being 'transpersonal', or as she puts it:

….what I mean by that is everything that could be opposed to the autobiographical 'je'. In the 'je', as I conceive of it, it's not an identity that aligns with me and my history, it's not a psychological 'je', it's a 'je' that is marked by communal experience which many of us have known – the death of one's parents,the condition of women, illegal abortion….for me the ‘je’ is not an identity, but a place marked by human experience and human events.

I think about the ‘communal I’ and the ‘owned I’ and how art provides for the possibility of imaginative empathy; to go beyond the self. There is more to say about all this, I have currently paused my PhD for a term to catch up with my thinking, feeling and processing, but I will continue to get well & grapple so I can say it.

I want to say thank you to Jane (McMorrow) who has been a rock of kindness and calmness; coming with me to appointments, driving me to the hospital on operation day, holding my hand after wince-inducing pre-op preparations, being there when I woke up, driving me home...her love and care, along with that of other cherished chums***, who talk to me endlessly, cook food, send messages of support, check in, make me hoot with laughter; their love is, I believe, my greatest achievement.

**Thanks to Tim Etchells for introducing me to the work of Annie Ernaux and to Wendy Houstoun for chewy chats

*** Emma, Liz, Joe, Janine, Jon, Kefi, Tim, Julia, Mark

Sue MacLaine20181 Comment