Susan Gubar’s Memoir of a Debulked Woman


Although mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes cause breast, ovarian, and many other cancers, I have tended to discuss mostly breast cancer here at the risky body. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that breast cancer poses the highest risk for BRCA+ women and that I am currently working towards lowering my own personal risk of breast cancer, so it is constantly on my mind.

Still, when I saw that feminist literary critic Susan Gubar’s latest book, Memoir of a Debulked Woman (2012), is on ovarian cancer, I wanted to read it so that I could better understand the disease, its culture, and the experiences of ovarian cancer patients. The fact that Gubar is a feminist academic pioneer writing on a topic relevant to me as a BRCA+ woman made the book even more appealing. Yet I have put off discussing it here, because I feel inadequate to the task of reviewing it. It’s a difficult topic to discuss, to say the least, and because there’s less of a discourse on ovarian cancer I feel like I don’t have the right lexicon for discussing it.

Memoir of a Debulked Woman is a detailed account of how a very intelligent, inquisitive mind grapples with being tethered to a diseased body with a terminal diagnosis. Gubar is a remarkable woman and this is a remarkable book.

Consider the way she describes her relationship with her husband, Don:

“Should Don or I die–how stupidly put!–when Don or I die, the physical departure would be, will be devastating. Yet surely that devastating physical separation cannot leave us or others bereft of our persistent relatedness to each other or of a profound and ongoing awareness of our persistent relatedness to each other. The location of that awareness remains nebulous in my mind, but not therefore less manifest. After the diagnosis and quite spontaneously, I found myself earnestly promising one and then the other of my distressed daughters, ‘I will love you beyond my death. I will love you from another place that you will palpably feel, and feel to be me loving you.’ Albeit confused, that declaration seemed to speak of the intense emotions sustained by the urgent desire to continue loving the beloved until and after death. I want to live as long as the people I love live. We will live so long as the people we love remember we love them” (27).

The memoir is filled with beautiful passages like this that evade the stereotypical rhetorics of hope and warfare that characterize so much cancer writing.

As a BRCA+ woman, I can relate to many things and situations that Gubar describes: stigma and shame, endless doctors, constant waiting, the barrage of tests, feeling the need to be your own advocate but feeling too stunned to do so, feminist suspicion of the medical industry, the sense of moving from the land of the healthy to the land of the sick. But there are many things that I cannot relate to: preparing for death, horrific surgeries that make prophylactic mastectomy look easy, terrible complications, etc.

Gubar details the barbaric procedures she undergoes and the painful side effects and complications that she endures in an effort to “[tell] the truth about the experiences of the female body” (31). She does not spare the humiliating details. Such candor is difficult to for writers to sustain and difficult for audiences to read, but it is incredibly important to tell the truth about women’s experiences with cancer. Although it’s a cliche to call cancer patients brave for living with their diseases, reading this memoir I can’t help but think that Gubar is incredibly brave to give such an honest, graphic account of what it’s really like to have ovarian cancer.

The book left me feeling angry, fearful, and despairing. Angry that women with ovarian cancer don’t have better treatments available that will enable them to maintain a high quality of life or potentially save their lives. Angry that  women don’t have better options for detection and prevention of ovarian cancer. Fearful that, as a BRCA+ woman, Gubar’s realities lay in wait in my own future. Despairing because it seems so unlikely that these problems will be solved in the near future or that Gubar will ever be cured of ovarian cancer.

Gubar was first diagnosed in November 2008. She completed this book in December 2010. I read in an interview that she was in remission, again, in summer 2012. I wish I knew how she was doing now. I have always thought highly of Susan Gubar’s work, and this memoir seems to me to an appropriate and important capstone to her career.

You can learn more about Gubar, her memoir, and ovarian cancer in a great segment from NPR here. Gubar is also writing a series of wonderful articles about living with cancer for the NYT here.