By Mary Valle
This thing is going around the internet again. People like to comment that it really makes them pause and consider their own demise for a moment. Excuse me while I break out a Jiminy Cricket-sized violin and stick my lower lip out, sadwy, at the gawkers. Which I wouldn’t have to do for long because a moment later the looky-loos will go back to their games, porn or shopping, not paying attention in med school or congressional hearings, anyway.
How are picture’s of a strangers end “awwwww” worthy? Have these illness-porn loving folks never been exposed to disease or death? I guess it’s possible, or else these images might not be so enticing. We hide illness and death behind closed doors, and dress up the eventual corpse so as not to scare the living. I frequently thought of prisons, slaughterhouses and mental institutions while spending a few years in cancer wards. Cancer (and other human maladies) are things that people like to feel all bad about, but the TV (or “beautifully photographed” ) version is nothing like reality. Jennifer Merendino’s husband set these free to circulate — perhaps, understandably, as a bracing counterpoint to all the pink-ribbon rah-rah breast cancer awareness/”cure” lies. I’m not sure that these photos accomplish that goal.
The ostensible purpose of such images is to teach us something about life and death, but I think there’s a weird sort of triumph implied.
Women are never good enough as we are, no matter what we do. Dying bravely seems like the only perfect option for us. As Sylvia Plath wrote in her poem, Edge:
The woman is perfected.
Body wears the smile of accomplishment
Consider the innumerable movies and television shows about scores of usually young, pretty female murder victims. These plots are so normal, we don’t even notice them any more. It’s built-in to the cultural narrative: martyrs are something that we like young and pretty. Women, especially. Suffering and dying young is a totally acceptable outcome for the fairer sex — after all, we were born to it. Witness all the young and beautiful martyr saints — who were generally killed for refusing sex but probably getting raped and chopped up or hung or eaten by lions anyway. Today we would surely have smart-phone video of martyrs’ rapes and murders, and Facebook would debate whether it was appropriate to let people “share” the footage since they might be doing it for “religious” reasons or to raise “awareness” of bodily sacrifice for Christendom.
Martyrs often met their doom because of haggles over their bodily integrity, and then their bodies were snuffed out. In these images of Jennifer Merendino’s death, a woman is reduced to the mere fact of her body. Perhaps someday, women might be raised to the category of “human,” but we are still a subspecies, an animal with uses, like cows, who are tied to rape racks, forced to give birth, then killed when they reach a certain age, which, when you think of it, is not all that different an agenda from certain elements in our society. Hunting and gang-raping girls and women remains a fun global pastime by all reports.
The “nothing but gross yet enticing sacks of flesh” theme is, of course, played out through history, especially since the beginning of agriculture and bronze-age monotheism. Nature-subduing includes controlling women, who are mankind’s designated livestock: useful but need serious restraints/punishment and continually “gross” due to the necessary reproductive functions.
For example, Ms. Mary (her first name is “Virgin”) had to be presanitized for Jesus’ convenience — she was the only human in history born without the stain of original sin on her soul. Original sin, of course, came from Eve, who just wanted to know stuff. Who can blame her? I would have totally picked that apple. Mary was famously impregnated without losing her precious virginity. Her “Yes” to God is supposed to be a moment of transcendence, but what was she going to say? No? To an angel? I doubt it. Women are conditioned to say yes, even when some guy you don’t know comes up to you and asks to “motorboat” your breasts on camera in the name of “breast cancer awareness.” “Yes” comes automatically, especially when you’re pre-accused of being a bitch if you say no.
Mary wasn’t good enough as a woman to give birth to the Lord. That casts the rest of womanity in a less-than-flattering light. Our bodies and ourselves just don’t measure up. A Sack of Flesh was necessary to beget the Son of God, yet said Sack was effectively sidelined from the Big Three while given a vanity position as the chick who gets to hang out with the cool guys, while never really becoming one of them. Anybodys, you’re never really going to be a Jet. Why not set up your own franchise or simply refuse to play their reindeer games? There’s a lot more to life than being a voluntary second-class citizen. (Note to self: note to self.
Apparently, it’s also supposed to be empowering when women pose for pictures in their underwear to show “real” beauty; show off their mutilation; show off their “real post-pregnancy bodies” etc. And, yes, to show what real dying looks like. All of these “awareness” campaigns only make me aware that we are still only considered bodies. Said bodies are never adequate, and photographs of “regular” folk only seem to hammer that message home. We’re subhumans whose only value lies in the shape and appearance of our bodies, even if we protest it.
It’s understandable, after all, we women are all caught in a classic, all-encompassing double bind. Being this and that simultaneously all the time without ever showing the effort to maintain the impossibly inadequate facade and squelch one’s ever-present cognitive dissonance takes up a lot of brain space that could be used for other kinds of thoughts. Or, thoughts. We are the unthinking “material.” We must be “cheerful” and “smile” in the face of anything. Here’s another tidbit making the internet rounds.Re: this. I’m tired. To each her own, for sure.
Here’s what happened before I had a mastectomy. A volunteer appeared and said she would wheel me in to surgery, which was several indoor blocks away from the meat locker where I gave up my worldly goods, gowned and surgically-socked. The volunteer was chatting away about her daughter who was my age, and she had long red fingernails and a hairdo and I sat there, mutely, hating her. I thought that Chatty Cathy had no right to hold me hostage at this particular moment so she could feel good about her cancer and stupid daughter and whatever else she was going on about.
Then we made an unscheduled stop. I was in a room and a doctor I had never met before appeared, older, handsome, olive-skinned, wearing Henry Kissinger glasses. He told me that he was going to have to give me a shot. The shot was going straight through the areola of my bad one. The needle was large and there was no anesthesia, topical or otherwise. I heard Chatty Cathy say “It’s all right, I had it done too,” and Dr. Kissinger came towards me with the needle. “Terror” is a word that is thrown around a lot, but this was, in fact, the real McCoy. I squeezed the life right out of Cathy’s hand, and outside, down the hallway, my husband heard me scream. It was 5:30 in the morning. And this was just the warm-up act. Yay! (PS, thank you, Cathy. You were, in fact, a desperately-needed gatekeeper.)
I wonder what feelings the casual or career misogynists of the world are offshoring onto women’s bodies? What is it about themselves that they fear or repress? What anger is being misdirected? If public acts of humiliating and violating females seem to bolster one’s same-bro reputation, one is behooved to wonder about the quality of one’s company. Is being a sociopath or, possibly worse yet, a sociopath’s minion, something to be proud of? These are the types who go on canned hunts and/or feel pretty good in uniforms conducting genocides: cowards, in other words. If “manliness” requires the constant abuse and subjugation of fellow humans, maybe “manliness” as we understand it, is flimsy. People like to talk about the brain being “hard-wired” a lot, but that’s mostly nonsense. Human cultures have taken many shapes and forms and the brain is actually a dynamic place. Come out of the dark, women-haters, and see what else life has to offer besides displacing one’s own self-hatred onto one’s own species. Who knows? Oz might explode into color.
Should I die of a disease, I wouldn’t want to be photographed while dying or have those images tossed into the internet’s maw — when I think of people I know who are dead, the way they died is not what I remember. It’s the person. It’s not their body, or what it looked like in various stages, except for the fact that their bodies are dead so I can’t see or talk to them any more. I miss their faces and their laughter. I recently told my daughter to put this under her cap for future reference: “Hating your body is bullshit.” Why waste your time? It’s limited, in case you hadn’t noticed. It’s also bullshit to hate anyone else’s body or reduce people to mere automatons. We persist in doing so, though.This is all nonsense. It. is. nonsense.
Do you know what a “perfect” body is? One that is alive.
Mary Valle is a contributing editor to Killing the Buddha. Read her poetry here maryvalle.tumblr.com