Susanna Kaysen brings the same unsparing self-examination that characterized Girl, Interrupted to this frank account of the mysterious vaginal ailment from which she suffered. This is an unusual but fascinating and perceptive exploration of body and mind, sexuality and self.
Kaysen's second memoir begins with a description of an ailment that affected her but is rarely mentioned: unexplainable vulvar pain, or vulvodynia. Like Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted, this book takes readers into a world rife with condescending health practitioners, dismissive doctors and mixed medical messages. Throughout, Kaysen refuses to flinch or concede to doctors' suggestions that her so-called medical problem rests solely in her head. By turns funny, angry and wry, the book offers an intimate look at what happens when sexual pleasure becomes impossible. Along the way, it addresses how mind connects to body, and how sex connects to relationships. It is intensely moving, if somewhat unsettling, stuff. Brave and honest, it explores the impact of sexual intercourse on emotional, spiritual and physical well-being.
—Eleanor J. Bader
Eight years ago, Kaysen's affecting story of her two years in a psychiatric hospital, Girl, Interrupted, helped sparked the memoir craze and later became a Hollywood blockbuster. Now Kaysen, also an accomplished novelist (Asa, As I Knew Him; Far Afield), returns with this thin, disappointing chronicle of what happened when "something went wrong" with her vagina. The terse narrative chronicles her quest to determine the cause of and cure for disabling vaginal pain vestibulitis, the medical term for a "sore spot" on the wall of her vagina. The most intriguing element is Kaysen's explosive relationship with an unnamed live-in boyfriend who, despite her pain, pressures her to have intercourse: "I want to fuck you, goddammit, he said, lunging at me, pushing his hand between my legs. I jumped out of bed. I was naked... I ran downstairs. All I could think of was to get away from the bed and from him and his fingers. I pressed my back against the wall in the living room and shook, from cold and the remnants of my desire." Later, sans boyfriend, Kaysen reflects too briefly on how she's changed as her desire for sex evaporates, concluding, "when eros goes away, life gets dull." Stingy with basic facts the reader is left wondering how old she is and how she spends her days (writing? teaching?) the memoir is admirable in its honesty and insights into medicine's limits. (Oct.) Forecast: Already the subject of a New York Times piece suggesting this "autopathography" may become the target of a backlash against such transgressive confessions, Kaysen's slight memoir will spark some controversy, but don't expect Girl, Interrupted-level sales. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
In this follow-up to Girl, Interrupted, Kaysen tackles an even more taboo subject than depression: her vagina. Maintaining the same humor and graphic honesty, she tells of her inconclusive search to diagnose and treat the shooting pains that plague her. Her gynecologist refers her to an herbalist, while her internist sends her to a biofeedback practitioner. She exhausts conventional aids like creams and pills as well as experiments with baking soda and acupuncture. Throughout, she bemoans how controlling, demanding, and unsympathetic her boyfriend is, leading the reader to wonder if her pain really lies in her head. It's as if the book is a form of therapy, allowing the author to dissect the mechanics of her sexuality. Told poetically and without apology, Kaysen's latest once again proves that the power of her work is deeply rooted in her ability to recognize her own emotions and convey them to others. Recommended for all public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/01.] Rachel Collins, "Library Journal" Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
A vagina dialogue: pithy, funny, adventurous, sexy, and eye-opening. The conversation is between Kaysen (Girl, Interrupted) and her vagina, which abruptly begins to give her pain instead of the pleasure they have shared so frequently over the years. Kaysen starts on a round of health practitioners, beginning with her comfortable gynecologist and moving on to an alternative medicine practice, a surgeon who specializes in the vulva (he's a "vulvologist"), and her respected internist. She rejects surgery, which involves cutting a nerve that may also dull her sexual pleasure. But she gives a number of other options a try, from Novocain and estrogen creams, which only increase the pain, to baking soda baths and tea soaks, which don't help at all. She researches the most likely diagnosis, but skeptically says no to the no-lettuce diet recommended as a cure, just as refuses Prozac: "My life is terrible," she tells a doctor. "So I should take Prozac and feel better about it, even though it's still terrible." Meanwhile, her live-in boyfriend demands sex of one sort or another on a constant basis and refuses to believe how painful ("like razor blades") even the slightest arousal-let alone intercourse-is for her. It's too much like rape, she frets; he leaves. Friends offer sympathy, advice, and good meals throughout the ordeal. Eventually the pain recedes, but so does all sensation. Does this mean no more sex, she wonders in anguish? For her, sexual conquest was what relationships were all about. Maybe that's what her vagina was trying to tell her. She isn't sure, so she's still listening. (One other unanswered question: What does the title mean? There's no indication here.) Disguised asplain, brown memoir, a voluptuous exploration of sexuality, aging, the failures of modern medicine, attempts at self-knowledge, and the meaning of pain.
From the Publisher
“Scary, thought-provoking, and humorous. . . . Kaysen painstakingly constructs her own brilliant vagina monologue.” –Elle
“Hilarious . . . intelligent and deeply felt . . . always interesting and, alas, occasionally heartbreaking.” –The Boston Globe
“Strangely seductive, even entertaining, and frequently funny. . . . When one body part starts sending out a signal that can’t be ignored, you can suddenly find yourself viewing friendships, partnerships, even inanimate objects through a different lens.” –Newsday
“Pithy, funny, adventurous, sexy, and eye-opening. . . . Disguised as plain, brown memoir . . . [The Camera My Mother Gave Me is] a voluptuous exploration of sexuality, aging, the failures of modern medicine, attempts at self-knowledge, and the meaning of pain.” –Kirkus
Read an Excerpt
If you have a vagina you know that most of the time it is without sensation. How does your spleen feel? How do your kidneys feel? How does your pancreas feel? Luckily, we have no idea how these things feel. The vagina is mostly like a pancreas and feels nothing. If it feels something, it is either erotically engaged or ill.
All this is obvious if you have one. But half of us don't.
I have one, and something went wrong with it.
Some days my vagina felt as if somebody had put a cheese grater in it and scraped. Some days it felt as if someone had poured ammonia inside it. Some days it felt as if a little dentist was drilling a little hole in it. The strangest thing was that all these sensations occurred in one inch-long part on the left side. The rest of it was fine.
It's a yeast infection, said my gynecologist in June.
On one side? I asked.
I guess it's localized, he said. Here, try this.
This was some antifungal cream. It didn't work.
Hmm, he said, when I returned after a week. Try this.
This was a three-day course of medication in a little bullet that I popped into a plunger and inserted nightly. It didn't work.
There's a stronger version, he said. Let's try that.
That was a cream in a tube. I filled a new plunger with cream and plunged it in. My vagina didn't like that. It became bright red and swollen and hurt worse for four days.
Let's try the pill form, said my gynecologist.
I popped the pill. It made me queasy for two days, but it didn't hurt my vagina.
Now let's do a culture, he said. He emerged from his lab grinning. Not a trace of yeast.
Why does it still hurt? I asked. And why are there red spots here and here? I pointed to the two red spots, one under my clitoris and one on my inner lip. They hurt particularly, I said.
Irritation, he said. Let's try estrogen cream. Use it for ten days. It increases the blood supply and will help it heal.
Estrogen cream dribbled out of me all day long, but for about a week my vagina returned to normal--I didn't feel it. Then it began to twitch and zing again.
That can happen, said my gynecologist.
The estrogen cream causes a yeast infection.
Oh no! I said. Now I'm back where I started.
You're not meant to use it every day, he explained. Twice a week--but I thought it might clear things up.
It did, for a while, I told him.
Let's treat the yeast infection and see where we are.
I went back to the bullet in the plunger.
I like my gynecologist. He is a robust gentleman of Italian origin with a resonant voice and large soft hands. His waiting room used to be decorated with pictures of babies he'd delivered. These days it's decorated with booklets about menopause. Malpractice insurance for obstetricians is very high, I guess.
I met my gynecologist twenty years ago when I had a cyst in one of the glands in my vagina. That was when I found out how lousy a vagina could feel. He removed this cyst in an operation called a marsupialization--because it makes a little pouch in the vaginal wall where the duct of the gland opens. That way, the gland can't get blocked again.
You know, I said to him after the bullet in the plunger hadn't worked for the second time, it hurts in the same spot as the Bump, or close to it.
One of the good things about having a doctor for twenty years is that you make a language together. "The Bump" is what we call that cyst he removed. Also, after twenty years I'm used to having conversations with him over the top of a sheet while he's got his head between my legs.
In a way, I continued, it feels as if the Bump has returned. It's phantom Bump!
The Bump can't return, he said. But I see what you mean. It's inflamed there. Those red spots are gone, though.
Now what? I asked.
Let's not treat the yeast infection. It'll resolve on its own, usually. Use the estrogen cream twice a week. It will help clear the inflammation, and it increases lubrication. Maybe some of this has to do with less lubrication.
But there isn't less, I said. It's just the same. And wasn't my estrogen level normal?
It was, he said. Three months ago it was.
Sometimes it hurts when I have sex, I said. That's what worries me. You can get a psychological problem from that--associating sex and pain.
Use estrogen, he repeated. And don't avoid sex. You know--he leaned over confidentially--they have shown that the more you use the vagina, the better its health.
My gynecologist had told me this before. That's another thing I like about him. He's very much in favor of sex. So am I, except when it hurts.
I went home with my estrogen cream and my resolve to have sex and maintain vaginal health.
But my vaginal health was declining.
New bad things started to happen. Sharp lines of zinging pain, like a toothache, began to radiate from my former Bump site to the edge of my outer lip, culminating in a dot of soreness. Two things made this worse: driving a car and wearing pants. Then in September, the red spots returned. I went back to the gynecologist.
It's cancer, I told him.
No it isn't, he said. He scraped a bit of skin off and went into his lab. It's not cancer, he repeated when he came out.
Is it herpes? It doesn't feel like herpes.
It's not herpes.
How do you know it's not cancer? I asked.
Cancer doesn't come and go, he said. Cancer just gets worse.
So what is it? I asked him.
I don't know, he said.
Listen, I said, everything's getting worse. I'm really having trouble with sex. My vagina hurts all the time now. If I have sex it hurts more, but it never doesn't hurt.
I know, said my gynecologist, but I don't know why. He walked over to the window and looked out. Western medicine doesn't know everything, he said. He turned back to me. I think maybe you should go to an alternative health center.
I was astonished. He was sending me to an herbalist!
There's a very good one here, he went on. They're not cranks. They're real doctors--I know some of them. They specialize in women's health. They aren't going to wave crystals over you or something. I think you ought to try them.
He was washing his hands of me! After twenty years.
But what is it? I asked him. What's wrong with me?
I don't know, he said. Try the alternative health place. The mind and the body--he wiggled his hands around. You have no bacterial infection. You have no fungus. You have no herpes. You have no cancer. I can't tell you why this is happening, but maybe they can.