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The Summer of Her Baldness: A Cancer…
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The Summer of Her Baldness: A Cancer Improvisation (Constructs Series)

by Catherine Lord

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Catherine Lord’s The Summer of Her Baldness is a radical articulation of the queer female body. The author’s usage of archival photos and e-mails moves away from traditional cancer narratives of straight memoir that simply catalogue day to day events as unfolding linear tear-filled tragedies. Another way in which Lord subverts expectations is through anthropomorphizing her cancer and more specifically her identity as someone with cancer by fashioning this identity as Her Baldness, “an honorific fabricated to point to the fact of mortality” (4). This, along with in a way “digitizing” her social interactions through e-mails both detaches her from her disease and brings her to a closer understanding of it.

Her e-mails from friends and colleagues tend to avoid the othering that occurs to people with cancer in public spaces, but such occurrences when Lord is out in the world are specifically gendered. In Chelsea, one friend tells her “You don’t have tits anyway […] It won’t matter” (19). This is a reduction of Lord’s femaleness in the face of disease, her breasts not being round, perky, and ideal as in perfect male-oriented constructions of female bodies.

When her hair begins to grow back, after chemo and radiation, she is othered not by her cancer but by constructions of gender. Flight attendants and salespeople consistently refer to her as “Sir” even in the face of corrections. “WHat is it that BETH can’t spell. L.E.S.B.I.A.N or C.H.E.M.O?” (122.) She notices that in this misreading of her as masculine, she enjoys the benefits of male privilege, and knows that she would be viewed with discomfort or repulsion as a sick white woman. She is, unintentionally, ‘passing’ as someone un-sick, without cancer.

Her hair, when first shaved off, in being detached from her body serves as a signifier of her illness. All the more, Her Baldness signifies and embodies her struggle with cancer. The head and hair play a large role in how the body is read by others, and within this book Lord explores how she is perceived as both “ill” and “lesbian” by others, while self-identifying and taking ownership of these identities through agency (to stop wearing a hat, to not wear a wig). Lord’s book, in both form and content, is undeniably queer. We have seen many traditional narratives about how cancer patients move through the world, and how lesbian women move through the world. This book is notable for being about a lesbian woman with cancer moves through the world, and the queerness of that question is mirrored by the experimental form of the text. ( )
  poetontheone | Nov 27, 2013 |
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