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A number of English faculty have presented the Poteat Lecture since the award was established in 1997, and I was particularly interested in attending Professor Mary DeShazer’s lecture this month as she was recognized for her scholarly achievements as Professor both of English and Women’s and Gender Studies. Her lecture, “Representing Breast Cancer in the Twenty-first Century,” was a moving reflection of both her earlier and current scholarship: her first book on the subject, Fractured Borders: Reading Women’s Cancer Literature, and now a second study, Mammographies: The Cultural Discourses of Breast Cancer Narratives, to be published in June. The impetus for the earlier work was the death of a close friend from a recurrence of breast cancer, and this later book examines the changing approaches of post-millennial illness narratives, the autobiographies and memoirs (“autothanatographies” as she termed them) that recount and probe a devastating illness. She noted that different issues inform these more recent discourses: genetic testing for the BRCA gene that raises ethical issues regarding preventative measures, a greater willingness to question the medical establishment, and the exploration of environmental toxins as contributing factors (but cultural and political silencing as well, unfortunately). She cited a shocking predictive statistic: rates are increasing so rapidly in the developing world, that in the next decades some 70% of breast cancers will arise there.
With the term “mammographies” in the title, she alludes both to the imaging technology and to the documentary accounts that map the experience of disease. The post-millennial works she focuses on are often collaborative and visual: photographic narratives representing cancer as well as graphic narratives (i.e. cancer “comics”-a rather oxymoronic concept). An example of the former is Catherine Lord’s The Summer of her Baldness: A Cancer Improvisation, which encompasses both sexual identity issues as well as Lord’s breast cancer. The Scar Project, from which Prof. DeShazer drew a number of images in her handouts, aims to make breast cancer visible while it questions the pink ribbon perspective on the disease. Miriam Engelberg’s Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person: A Memoir in Comics tracks the recurrence of disease, and Stephanie Byram’s Knowing Stephanie is a collaborative but elegiac book with photography by Charlee Brodsky.
After surveying these works, Professor DeShazer discussed some of the broader aesthetic, ethical, and social issues raised by breast cancer narratives. There is the question of informed consent-who has the right to take and publish personal narratives or photographs that have become essentially momenti mori, and whose interests are served in doing so? She touched on the politics of prostheses, and the view that breast cancer culture can be considered pseudo-optimistic. At the end she concluded eloquently that these narratives of illness can be transformational, empathetic encounters that change the inner world of another individual: one looks again, “quietly and differently.”