The Camera My Mother Gave Meby Susanna Kaysen
The Camera My Mother Gave Me takes us through Susanna Kaysen’s often comic, sometimes surreal encounters with all kinds of doctors—internists, gynecologists, “alternative health” experts—as well as with her boyfriend and her friends, when suddenly, inexplicably, “something went wrong” with her vagina.
The title comes from Luis Buñuel’s film Viridiana. Some peasants are at a banquet in a country mansion. They ask a maid to take a group snapshot, and she obliges, lifting up her skirt and using the “camera” that’s underneath.
Kaysen’s The Camera My Mother Gave Me observes what happens when sexual pleasure is replaced by pain. “When eros goes away,” she writes, “it’s as if I’m colorblind. The world is gray.” But is this a problem of body, or mind? And can clinicians tease out the difference between the two?
Spare, frank, and altogether original, The Camera My Mother Gave Me challenges us to think in new ways about the centrality and power of sexuality. It is an extraordinary investigation into the role sex plays in perception and our notions of ourselves—and into what happens when the erotic impulse meets the world of medicine
—Eleanor J. Bader
“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
- Knopf Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.93(w) x 7.83(h) x 0.84(d)
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 ofyeast.
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 normalI 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 weekbut 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 marsupializationbecause 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 thatassociating sex and pain.
Use estrogen, he repeated. And don't avoid sex. You knowhe leaned over confidentiallythey 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 doctorsI 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 bodyhe 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.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Meet the Author
Susanna Kaysen is the author of the novels Far Afield and Asa, As I Knew Him and the memoir Girl, Interrupted. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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Kaysen's book describing her journey through a myriad of health care specialists, prompted by something going terribly wrong with her vagina, is a story every woman should read. None of us are immune. Life can throw us a curve ball in this form in no time flat. Best be prepared! Read how Kaysen coped. Read how alarmingly ignorant the health care community is regarding such a highly sensitive -- and devastating -- subject. Then celebrate her candor and hope you never have to experience anything even resembling her problem. Like Kaysen, this reviewer has been through similar experiences. Some 'treatments' have been so agonizingly painful that they have landed me in the hospital for pain management. [The proverbial cure being worse than the illness.] This book should be required reading for every man and woman in medical school. Some things simply cannot be taught by medical texts. An added thought to ponder here: the medical definition of 'pain' is 'an unpleasant, emotional condition, in the presence or absence of tissue damage.' Oh Puhleeze. The nursing definition is right on target: 'If a patient says she's in pain, then she is in pain.' Once physicians learn to listen like nurses, then books like this may become a thing of the past. In the meantime, thanks to courageous souls like Kaysen, we all can become more enlightened, and, hopefully, sympathetic to the conditions others face.
At first I thought this book was about something else. Then I read it and I related to it so much, it really is a great book. It's funny,sentimental and just plain real I truley would read this book again.
I think we've all had some pain or condition that no doctors have been able to treat and/or diagnose. We've just had to deal with it until it slowly went away. In Susanna Kaysen's case, it happens to be her "down there" region. She's frustrated that she has an inexplicable condition and even more frustrated that her doctors aren't able to do anything for her. On top of all the pain and worrying, she has to deal with a self-centered boyfriend that is insensitive to her pain and can only focus on his own needs and wants. From a guy's point of view, this was actually an interesting memoir. Although I couldn't exactly relate to her condition, I could relate to the feeling it gave her and how it affected the other aspects of her everyday life. The memoir was well-written by Kaysen and was easy to read. Her writing is very conversational, humorous, and light-hearted. She provides a quick, easy read about a serious physical condition that also delves into her mental/emotional issues with relationships. My only disappointment with her writing is her refusal to use quotation marks to delineate between the spoken and written word. Although easy to follow regardless, creating your own grammar rules is a pet peeve of mine, especially when the book is reviewed by an editor and gets published. I was also a little disappointed with the abrupt ending. It was as if Kaysen thought, "Well, that's enough. I've gotta turn this in to my editor by today anyway. I'll just end it there." The first 95% of the book went into such explicit detail that the reader became accustomed to this way of writing. To have Kaysen leave the book with so many unanswered questions about her condition and her future with relationships seems like a letdown after we gave her (and her v*gina) our full attention.
It reads like the very first draft. I enjoyed it, and there were a couple sparks of emotion for me, but the rest of it fell very flat. I wanted more depth, more emotion, more thought and reflection. Majority of the book is her arguing with doctors, talking to doctors, trying whatever they tell her, and arguing with her boyfriend after, and there is very little story in that. By the end of the book, very little had changed since the beginning, and the narrator hadn't changed much, and I was left wondering what the point was. This could have been so much more than it was, especially since it covers an untalked about subject.
I didn't love this book, but what I did like about it was the author's ability to discuss such sensitive subject matter in a way that women can relate to. I can't personally relate, but after reading this, I can only imagine the pain and devastation of having this illness "steal your sexuality" in a way. What I didn't like was the author's omission of quotation marks to let you know the difference between what she is saying and what she is thinking. I'm sure this was done to create a certain tone, but being an English teacher I can't help but be bothered :) I also hated the ending of the book. It just completely stops...I kept looking for the next chapter or checking that pages hadn't been ripped out. I mean maybe this was something that she was never completely cured of, but I was looking for some type of closure. Some revelation, or resignation, or SOMETHING! Like retribution for her jerk ex-boyfriend.