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Saturday morning, March 7, 1992, was bright and sunny on the east coast of Florida. It would be hot, I thought, but I dressed formally in a pantsuit and heels, because I was scheduled to address a local chapter of NOW that day. I live alone, so did not talk to anyone until I reached the restaurant where I was to speak and was greeted by the NOW people. Then I was startled to hear a thin, reedy sound emerge from my throat. It was not my voice at all. I was puzzled; my daughter, Jamie, had returned to New York the day before, after a week's visit. Although I had had what I thought was laryngitis while she was with me, my voice had been normal. Now it was not.
Mike Edmondson, a friend, came up to greet me. I was surprised to see him--few men attend NOW events. But Mike is political and a feminist. I recalled that we had been supposed to see a movie together some weeks earlier but somehow had not done so.
"Wonderful to see you, Mike! How have you been?"
"Not too good, Marilyn. That's why I never called. The Monday after you came for dinner, I was diagnosed with cancer."
I felt myself pale.
"Testicular cancer. They operated. It's gone. I'm fine."
It was almost inconceivable that he could be diagnosed and cured within so brief a time. "It seems miraculous," I said.
"That's how they treat it now." He smiled. Mike is a good-looking man in his thirties, and he shone with health. It was equally shocking that he should develop cancer and that he had been cured of it in the few weeks since I'd seen him.
As we discussed his treatment, I thought about my friend Sibyl Claiborne. I had flown up to New York in February to appear on a PEN panel on Taboos in Literature, which she chaired. Sibyl had seen her oncologist that same day and, in quiet distress, told me she had been diagnosed with cancer of the lung. The doctors at NYU Hospital told her it was tiny, smaller than a quarter, and that she had a good prognosis. As she recounted this, a pang of dread struck me, hard, like a gong in my chest. I began to say that I, too, had cancer, but I stopped myself in time. I didn't have cancer. Why did I feel that I did? Since the fall of 1991, I had had an intermittent consciousness of--or had been inventing--a deep-seated malaise in my body. In November I had had a flu that hung on for months, then turned into a cold, which as late as March had not yet gone away. I told myself my dread at hearing Sibyl's news was just empathy. Maybe I wanted to share her grief, since I was so fond of her and regretted the sorrow she bore--her husband had died a couple of years earlier and her only child, a son, had died of AIDS the year before. She had no family left; she had only her close friend Grace Paley.
Maybe what was driving me was guilt at the fact that I was still smoking. I had been smoking since I was fifteen, since the night of the junior prom in the Café Rouge of the old Hotel Pennsylvania. I was an instant addict, moving swiftly up to a pack a day forty-six years ago. For years, doctors and friends urged me to quit, but I rationalized. There was no cancer on either side of my family, and beyond that, I couldn't believe that an activity I enjoyed so much could harm me. My brilliant uncle Henry (who also smoked and drank) regularly told me stories of relatives of his (always men) who had smoked two packs of cigarettes and drunk a fifth of bourbon every day until they died at ninety-four. I counted on being like them.
But today, listening to Mike, although he was recovered and out of danger, I felt the dread again. And now I had a symptom. Dread became constant, like the sound of a drone, a repetitive, dull bass instrument used in medieval music. Sometimes its voice seems to vanish, overpowered by the other instruments, but it is continually present in the background, a grinding presence, grindingly the same.
I gave my speech with my half-voice, which didn't clear that day or the next. After ten days I called my New York internist, Edith Langner, the doctor I trusted more than any other, and told her this symptom had followed a lingering cold. She prescribed an antibiotic and told me to call her the following week. The next week, the voice remained the same. I had no other symptoms. Hypothesizing that it was an allergy, she recommended a nasal spray. But I was convinced I had throat cancer.
A busy and exciting year lay ahead. For the past seven years, seven days a week, nine to ten hours a day, I had been researching and writing a history of women. It had become a huge project, edging out all others. I had not published a new book since 1986, had not earned an advance since 1985, and the history was still unfinished. But I was near the end. After hundreds of pages describing the constrictions placed on women in past ages, I had written a segment on how law and custom treat women in the present, the twentieth century. Once I compiled it, I found this segment so shocking that I felt it should be published separately right away. I took the title of the segment, The War Against Women, for the book, which my usual publishers at home and abroad were eager to publish. It would be issued in several countries in March and April 1992, and I had promised to promote it in England, Ireland, Germany, Holland, and the United States. I looked forward to traveling abroad, seeing old friends and familiar places, and to being on the move again after so many sedentary years. I would travel, speak in bookstores, meet new people--things I enjoyed but hadn't done in a long time.
On March 19, I flew to New York and, at Dr. Langner's direction, went for a chest X ray. She had nagged me about smoking ever since I first consulted her, and clearly she was worried about lung cancer now. But the X ray showed my lungs were clear.
The night before I left on my tour, my coven celebrated the spring equinox. The coven was born when Gloria Steinem invited E. M. (Esther) Broner, Carol Jenkins, and me for dinner one night in 1988. Ms. having been (temporarily) sold to two Australian feminists, Gloria had fewer responsibilities than usual; for the first time in many years, she had some leisure time and decided to use it to do things she wanted to do instead of things she had to do. This included seeing women she wished to know better. She also wanted to form a group to celebrate, not traditional holidays, but their ancient equivalents, the solstices and equinoxes. We decided to call ourselves a coven, modeling ourselves on ancient cells of witches, wise women with healing powers in medieval Europe. Over the years, we became intimate friends--not in the sense that we spoke every day and knew every detail of the others' lives, but as friends who knew each other's qualities and had a sense of each other's fears and longings, the grooves and velvet folds we were trapped in, our efforts to pull ourselves free; and we were ardent about one another's well-being. These women were (and are) among my most important friends. The first meeting was held at Gloria's house. I don't recall our discussion that first night; we sat down to dinner at eight and rose at three in the morning. We all felt that this was something that should continue and, in future meetings, used the same satisfying form we had arrived at the first time.
The day after the March 1992 coven meeting, I boarded a plane for London.
My trip was deeply satisfying. Throughout Britain and Germany, I spoke in bookstores thronged with people (mostly women) who were as shocked and appalled as I by the condition of women in general and who kept asking me and each other what they could do to make a difference. In Dublin, my friend the writer Lois Gould came in from County Mayo to have dinner with me--Dublin has lots of fine restaurants nowadays--and we had great fun together, as we always do. I spoke at University College and went with some lively Irish feminists to have tea with Mary Robinson, then the President of Ireland, in her mansion on Howth Hill. She had asked to meet me (we had encountered each other at a party in County Mayo the year she campaigned for office, but she had not recognized my name at the time). I admire Ms. Robinson greatly: she devised ways to use a powerless and limited office to articulate a strong and positive moral position. Her meeting with me caused the conservative newspapers, which had taken horrified note of my visit to Ireland, to bray in outrage on the front page.
After more promotion in England, I flew to Germany, where I was scheduled to give a speech every night and several interviews a day for a week. The reward for this terrible grind was that my publishers put me up at some of the most exquisite hotels I have ever seen (especially in Cologne, where the French doors of my antique-filled suite faced the cathedral across the street). I moved from Bonn to Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, and Cologne, then flew to Munich, a new city to me. From there I was going to Berlin and then home. My German publisher, Claudia Vidoni, accompanied me on this tour and, on my one free afternoon, took me for a walk through Munich.
Knowing its history, I was stiff viewing the quaintest of the German cities I had visited (I'd been through but not in the east, except for Berlin). I asked to see the square where Hitler held his first rallies. Its entrance was marked by an old monument, which Hitler converted to a Nazi shrine. People passing it were required to give the Nazi salute on pain of death, Claudia said. The monument still stands, rededicated to new ideals. I stood there for a long time, overcome. My throat was thick; I could not speak; I felt a little dizzy. What filled my brain was an overwhelming sense of a complex idea that came all at once, like a huge map the eye apprehends in one moment: the thought of the agony that began here, in this charming, quaint old town, and moved to Berlin, where I would fly tomorrow morning. It was a short flight; it took Hitler far longer to progress from Munich to Berlin, but that was where he, too, moved. And Stalin, too, moved toward Berlin; that was where they met, the monstrous machine set in motion by Hitler and the monstrous machine set in motion by Stalin. Two men, two mere mortals: the fruit of their lives intertwined in Berlin. I had not been there since the wall fell, but I had once walked along the ugly thing, staring into the rubble of East Berlin that lined it.
It was just a line on a map, almost a straight line, north-northeast, the direction I would take tomorrow. I saw Hitler massing support in Munich, entering Berlin and taking over that grand imperial city with its palaces and parks, its linden trees and beautiful allées and magnificent apartments, its magisterial architecture and down-and-dirty cabarets. Stalin rose in Russia over the slaughter of the civil war, millions of bleeding bodies dying in the snow, then killed millions more on his own. They made a pact my uncle Henry claimed would be invincible: Germany had industry, Russia was rich in raw materials; together they were unbeatable, he insisted. But they blew it. Two men, two opposing philosophies, but identical twins in despotism and terror. Both anti-Semitic, if truth be told. Between them, how many humans did they destroy? Jews across Europe traveling in sealed boxcars to unspeakable camps that no one can be said to have survived (for those who outlived them were tragically damaged and passed their grief on to another generation). And Stalin's paranoiac campaigns. And the war itself. How many millions of humans does that make?
I saw this simple line, Munich to Berlin, like a deep gash in the body of the continent, and blood spreading out from it in all directions, covering the continent and beyond, moving like a tidal wave across the world, leaving no one untouched by grief and injury.
Now the wall was down, the camps were memorials, it was all over (except that Nazism was rising again, right here in the city where it began). The destruction of the wall was an event they could hold ceremonies about, like the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury having tea (as they did some years ago), their churches' slaughters and burnings and drawings-and-quarterings and excommunications and inquisitions and witch hunts and anathemas and tirades, which swept Europe for two centuries, over in the late twentieth century. Hey, let's do tea.
I could not speak. I could barely walk back to my hotel. I was overwhelmed by a sense of futility and weariness at the murderousness of my race. I felt I was dying, and wanted to die.
At the same time, I was amazed at myself. This was, after all, hardly the first time I had thought about these two men, or the history in which they were embedded. Nor was I in the habit of feeling overwhelmed and maudlin about historical events long past. I wondered what I was doing, why I was letting myself down this way into a well of despair--why I was so emotional.
I flew to Berlin next day for a full schedule of events. The following day, I was to leave Germany. I had a 7:00 a.m. TV appearance, inadvertently causing a hysterical brouhaha because I had worn a royal-blue dress and they had a royal-blue cloth backing on the set. The director insisted that a different curtain be found, refused to start filming until it was. I was growing nervous--I had to pick up my luggage at the hotel before catching my plane. In the end, I had two hours to spare before my noon flight. I had my driver take me past what had been Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin. Entering East Berlin had always been an ordeal, whether one went by car, bus, train, or subway. Now we simply drove through the gate.
Although much of socialist East Berlin had been left to rot, especially around the wall, there was, farther in, a charm and peacefulness the West lacked. The West was a gigantic ad for stuff, a clamoring competition in neon stretching its neck as high as possible so as to be seen in the East, selling the virtues of cameras and cars, television sets and radios. East Berlin was in many ways a quiet little town. Blocks of apartments were lined with trees; there were few cars, few shops (and no neon signs), and few people. It was quiet, unmanicured. Now that the wall was down, there was construction everywhere--huge cranes, rutted streets, rot revealed. The work might lead to a richer future, but the place was raw at the moment.
When I boarded the plane for my trip home, I thought I had never before in my life been so tired. My fatigue felt serious, like the fatigue of illness. I told the cabin assistants not to wake me for dinner, and slept all the way back.
I had no time to recover, however. As soon as I landed, I was launched into promotion in New York, speaking at Newsday's Book and Author Luncheon in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and giving print and TV interviews. Dr. Langner examined me and found nothing wrong, but she recommended an ear, nose, and throat specialist. I made an appointment with him for May 4, two weeks off, then continued to do promotion. I spoke at Sarah Lawrence College, did a host of radio and TV interviews. On Shakespeare's birthday, April 23, I flew to Terre Haute to speak on Measure for Measure at Indiana State University. The following week, I had interviews in Washington, D.C., and spoke at the Smithsonian. Next I flew to Boston, and late Friday I returned to New York.
On Monday, May 4, I saw the ENT specialist. Like Edie, he diagnosed an allergy, and prescribed the same nasal spray. I told him it had not helped. He said I wasn't using it properly and gave me new instructions. I happily accepted this correction, even though my drone was sawing through everything he said. The week after, I flew to Philadelphia, then Toronto, where I addressed a large crowd at the university. I was introduced by Michele Landsberg, the brilliant columnist for the Toronto Star. Michele, a friend of Esther Broner's, has become a friend of mine as well; she joined me for dinner, bringing a group of lively, warm people. Dinners like this, with intelligent, engaging conversation, were major joys in my life. I briefly forgot my dread.
On Mother's Day, my kids took me for brunch in SoHo, but the dread was back. I knew I was not well. The sense that I had cancer hung upon me like an invisible black veil that only I was aware of, even though it occasionally occurred to me that I was inventing it. I said nothing; I was just silently terrified, unable to explain the malaise that permeated my being. Since I did not feel legitimate in speaking about it, I hardly spoke at all. Like a lover obsessed with someone married or otherwise unsuitable, I could not talk about what occupied me, but could think of nothing else. I walked through interviews and speeches like a zombie. I gave a talk at the YWCA in New York, did some interviews, and then flew to Chicago for more readings and interviews. At the end of the week I received an honorary degree from Hofstra, my undergraduate alma mater, and gave a speech; even there, I felt isolated with my terrible secret, enervated. The next week, there were more interviews, and a book party at the lovely town house of my agent, Charlotte Sheedy. A week later, I flew out to the West Coast for more promotion.
Early in June, I went to Boston for the semiannual meeting of the Harvard Graduate Society Council, an informal body intended mainly to keep graduate alumni involved with the university. As I was dressing for dinner at my Cambridge hotel, for some reason I placed my fingertips on the soft tissue just above the clavicle on the left side of my chest. I felt two small, hard lumps. The dread leaped up, then fell still. What had been only a feeling was now fact.
This trip being at my own expense, I could take some time for personal pursuits. I wanted to see Barbara Greenberg, a close friend for almost thirty years. Barbara, a poet who lives in Boston, offered to drive me around Lincoln, where I had set Our Father, the novel I was writing. I had often visited that beautiful town during my years at Harvard, but I needed more detailed background for the novel. Barbara and I spent a grand day visiting churches and gazing at mansions.
Barbara's husband, Harold, is a surgeon, and over the decades of her marriage she has picked up considerable medical knowledge. So as we relaxed over drinks at her house, I asked her to feel the lumps and tell me what she thought. She did; she frowned and said, "Show them to Harold tonight." Harold came in as we were about to go out to dinner, and I repeated my request. He felt them, frowned, also said, "Show them to your doctor." The concern and dismay they tried to hide reinforced my sense that the lumps were cancer.
As soon as I returned to New York, I made an appointment with the ENT physician I had seen before. He ordered a CT scan. As I was leaving his office, he said, "I am very sorry for you, Ms. French." I deduced he didn't need a CT scan to know cancer when he felt it. The scan, taken on Thursday, June 11, showed a growth on my esophagus. I was given the results on Friday.
Sick at heart, I flew to Dublin on Sunday, to give the keynote address at the Joyce Symposium. I love Ireland, and I've walked through Dublin often, on Bloomsdays and other visits; and this was to be a special visit--President Mary Robinson was to introduce me. But after giving my speech and attending the Bloomsday Banquet (at Trinity this year, rather than Dublin Castle), I left. I did not stay to enjoy the city or the rest of the symposium, as I usually do. I was too anxious and frightened, and I needed to make plans for treatment.
The day after I returned, I went to St. Luke's
Roosevelt for a biopsy conducted by the ENT specialist. He called even before the sample had been biopsied. There was no question in his mind: the mass in my esophagus was malignant. He wanted to operate, to get rid of it as soon as possible; how about Monday? The idea that he could rid me of this cancer that easily and quickly very much appealed to me, and I agreed. But I also called Edie Langner, who said that was rushing things. Wait, she advised. Consult other doctors. I'll get some names for you.
On Friday, the next day, I was supposed to fly to Stratford, Ontario, to give a talk at the Shakespeare Theatre Festival, but the biopsy had left my throat too sore for speech. I realized this on Thursday afternoon, a little late to find a replacement. I felt terrible at letting the Stratford people down, especially at the last minute, and searched my mind. Then it came to me: Gloria! It didn't matter that she wasn't a Shakespeare scholar; everyone would love meeting the most famous feminist in the world, who is also a graceful, intelligent speaker and a lovely person. If she was free, if she was willing, she could give the speech I'd written--if she wanted to use it. She might even enjoy it: I had analyzed Measure for Measure with special attention to its several endings, in which two wronged women clamor for justice. Both have been harmed by Antonio, the surrogate for the true ruler, the Duke, who has been away. The women charge Antonio with what we would call sexual harassment and rape. But what is astonishing is that the arguments Antonio and the Duke (acting as male authority) use to silence and dismiss the women are exactly the same as those used by the men of the Senate committee against Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings.
I called Gloria, who said she was pleased to do this, especially since I had never before asked her for anything. Not a word about her rare free weekend sacrificed, or the fact that she would have to leave for Canada the very next day. She went and was, of course, a sensation; the Stratford audience and officials were delighted. On top of that, she donated the entire honorarium to a cause she supports. This is one example of why so many people consider her a saint.
The biopsy showed I had squamous cell cancer, a slow-growing type that grows in organ linings. I later discovered that the mass the ENT man found was not the primary cancer but a metastasis. Edie had saved me from a terrible error. If the ENT specialist had operated on the tumor he found, he would not have removed the entire cancer and might have damaged my voice box, since the cancer was touching the nerve leading to the vocal cord. I never returned to that doctor.
The soreness in my throat faded in two days, and on Monday I went ahead with my plans to fly to Amsterdam for the 1992 Feminist Book Fair, where I was to speak. I enjoyed the week at the fair as much as I could enjoy anything in that time. I met Marleen Gorris (who in 1996 would win an Academy Award for Antonia's Line but who had already made the deeply impressive A Question of Silence, which many people believe to be the greatest feminist film ever made). I went through the motions of debating Fay Weldon (a dear woman with whom I have no significant differences). With my friends Annaville Petterson and Nettie Blanken, I walked out to Marken lighthouse, a beautiful spot on Lake Ysselmeer, the former Zuyder Zee. It was too long a walk for me, and I was grateful when we stopped for beer and sandwiches on the way back.
I was moving about in a kind of stupor, wondering if this was the last time I would see this friend or that, the last time I would visit this lovely city, the last time I would be an apparently healthy person in public. And indeed, that was the case.