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REWRITING ILLNESS by Elizabeth Benedict


A View of My Own

by Elizabeth Benedict

Pub Date: May 23rd, 2023
ISBN: 9781942134916
Publisher: Mandel Vilar Press

A New York City cancer memoir informed by Susan Sontag and Nora Ephron.

“I first read Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor in 1992,” writes Benedict, “curious about it as a writer and still an inhabitant of the kingdom of the well.” Sontag’s work, she writes, is “a touchstone, a learned investigation on a disease that’s still baffling, still killing.” Benedict chronicles many seemingly mundane activities that assumed greater resonance after her own diagnosis: visiting Zabar’s for chocolate babka when anxiety took away the ability to stomach anything else; picking up a puzzle at the Metropolitan Museum of Art gift shop before starting treatment at the facility that treated Ephron; taking a chemo-driven walk through Central Park in the middle of December. These and other aspects of the author’s cancer experience will be less relatable to readers who, for instance, cannot share their pathology report with a good friend who used to run a major New York City hospital. Of course, illness is a great leveler, and privilege neither eliminates the fear of death nor guarantees a cure—though it may increase the chances. As Benedict shows, the “best” doctors still struggle with communication, and even the empowered can lose their voices in front of the lab coat. The author mostly resists the standard tropes of illness memoirs and compiles her thoughts not in chapters but brief episodes, which allows her to explore the range of her reactions to the disease she spent a life fearing. She invokes both the writing and silence of Sontag and Ephron—her cancer “support group”—and sometimes tamps down the emotional intensity of her experiences with analysis or humor. Throughout, there are a host of deeply moving moments— e.g., sharing her diagnosis with her adult stepdaughter or wrestling with the death of a close friend.

A fine antidote to anodyne cancer accounts.