By Christina Gutierrez
In Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals and A Burst of Light, she provides readers with insight into what it means to live with breast cancer for her as a black lesbian feminist. While she points to moments of self-empowerment in spite of the breast cancer, she also underscores the horrifying reality of the disease and its larger sociopolitical implications. The mutilated body and the looming possibility of death become prevalent themes in both texts as Lorde meditates on the loss of her breast and her own mortality.
Through her critiques of Western scientific practices and through her more intimate, personal introspections, Lorde’s journal entries convey the physical and psychic pain she endures after undergoing a mastectomy and losing her right breast. However, instead of presenting this amputation, and her subsequently altered body, in a macabre way, Lorde works to embrace and even celebrate her asymmetrical physique as a marker of her survival and strength. She also challenges the motives of plastic surgeons and the medical industry as a whole by, in part, casting them in an almost vampiric representation as those only interested in profit at the expense of effacing women’s experiences with breast cancer by encouraging reconstructive surgery or prostheses.
The threat of death also suffuses Lorde’s journals, particularly in A Burst of Light after she learned that the cancer had recurred and metastasized. In an entry dated December 27, 1985, Lorde describes a nightmare in which she is visited by a ghostly, grim reaper figure whose cold fingers crept over her left hip as she lay in bed. Lorde writes, “I screamed and roared in my sleep, and … I woke myself up calling out, and of course there was nothing in my bed at all, but still felt as if death had really been trying.”
Lorde’s writings on her struggle with a life-threatening disease undoubtedly speak to the fear and horror that such a struggle provokes. Yet, ultimately, The Cancer Journals and A Burst of Light destabilize dominant standards of “symmetrical” beauty. Furthermore, while for many including Lorde, the thought of dying often stimulates intense fear, she approaches the topic with inspiring courage and hope.
Related: Who's Afraid of Black Women?
Christina Gutierrez writes about 20th and 21st century Latina and African American women’s illness autobiographies, Black and Chicana feminist theories, and the history of science in the US as it pertains to the medicalization of women’s bodies. She is a member of the UTSA Reading Collective.