No one ever said having a vagina was easy. Feminists in the early ’70s encouraged women to whip out a speculum and check out their powerful pudenda; along with consciousness-raising, it was a way of demystifying and exposing the female experience. But take that impulse to the furthest extreme and you end up with Susanna Kaysen’s The Camera My Mother Gave Me, a bizarre autobiographical book about female trouble that is completely severed from any political, social, or emotional context.
Best known for her bestselling autobiography, Girl, Interrupted, about her teen years in the madhouse, Kaysen’s new book revolves around an unsolved medical mystery starring her own vagina. Unfortunately, like a lot of lesser memoirs out there, The Camera My Mother Gave Me enumerates undigested details as if they themselves add up to something. Kaysen’s prose is stripped down to the point of vacancy: It volunteers nothing about her childhood, her adulthood, her career. Pretty much it’s just about her vagina, though along the way there’s a lover (who’s alienated by her malfunctioning sexual organs), some friends (who console her about her malfunctioning sexual organs), and a lot of medical practitioners (you get the picture). This eerie focus allows Kaysen to fully draw our attention to her body, to how she lives in it, and how it affects her daily life.
“Some days my vagina felt as if somebody had put a cheese grater in and scraped. . . . Some days it felt as if a little dentist was drilling a hole in it,” writes Kaysen in her deadpan style. So she embarks on roundelays of clueless doctors and painful treatments. An alternative health center suggests the problem is acidity and advises baking-soda baths (which cause terrible stinging) and tea baths (“brown bottom and more stinging”); other doctors diagnose menopause or vestibulitis and recommend a battery of treatments, from surgery to bladder retraining. Nothing curbs the ceaseless misery emanating from Kaysen’s nether regions.
A few chapters into the book the reader starts to understand that there’s another pain in Kaysen’s vagina—her schmucky boyfriend, who continually badgers her about having sex. He accuses her of not loving him and says stupid things like “If you never do it, you’re going to get all out of shape and it’s going to hurt for sure.” This should invite some deep relationship conversations between the two (or at least some heady contemplation from Kaysen, a reasonably intelligent woman who has clearly undergone plenty of therapy) but instead . . . she just gives in, repeatedly. Her description of intercourse is harrowing: “I felt that something was scraping me over and over in the same raw spot, until the rawness and soreness were all I could feel. He didn’t notice. . . . I pulled away inside myself, so that the events on the bed were far from where ‘I’ was.”
You’d think that writing this personal account would mean reconnecting with that “I,” but Kaysen seems to have left it at the vulvologist’s office. She splays her body and her sex life for public examination, yet shows very little insight into her own predicament. As she reaches the end of this numb book, Kaysen suddenly presents a very Freudian moral to the story: Pain and depression are trying to tell us something. “My vagina keeps trying to get my attention,” she writes, but one can’t help feeling, after reading Camera, that it wouldn’t have had to try so hard had she been paying attention.
Annie Ernaux could never be accused of inattention. Happening, a memoir of her unwanted pregnancy as a college student in 1963 France, unsparingly probes one of the most extreme female experiences.
American feminists developed the genre of wire-hanger abortion horror stories to reinforce support for Roe v. Wade, but in the process created a very specific script set as much by antiabortion forces as by feminists—the guilty recollection accompanied by the profession of lifelong, torturous shame. Ernaux, a French novelist, bravely smashes these conventions. What makes Happening more than a clichéd tale of youthful misadventure and botched abortion is her surprising reaction to her pregnancy: She remembers those three months as “a radiant state of limbo.” It also flooded her with a sense of impending doom. “Time ceased to be a series of meaningless days punctuated by university talks and lectures. . . . It became a shapeless entity growing inside me which had to be destroyed at all costs.” The first in her working-class family to attend college, she wonders if “the legacy of poverty” had caught up with her, so that the pregnancy represents social failure.
Just as Kaysen’s book is a labyrinthine search for someone to fix her vagina, most of Happening follows Ernaux’s quest for an illegal abortion. With no privileged connections to call for help, Ernaux instead approaches an acquaintance connected to the underground birth-control movement: “His face instantly took on an intrigued, thrilled expression as though he could picture me with my legs wide apart, my vagina exposed. He may also have been amused by the sudden change from model student to desperate girl.” Several doctors turn her away, put off by the potential jail sentence attached to abortion in 1963. Ernaux blindly pokes at her uterus with knitting needles and goes skiing in hopes she might “dislodge” it, before finally being hooked up with a backstreet Parisian abortionist.
A brainy young grad student who believed her body “was basically no different from that of a man,” Ernaux is horrified to be brought so brutally down to the physical realm. But in the end, Happening suggests, this is the pregnancy’s great legacy: to shake her out of intellectual abstraction and into an awareness of the sensations that make up one’s life. This mixture of intelligence and receptivity shows in Ernaux’s unflinching details—not just in Happening but in previous books such as A Woman’s Story and Shame, all sharply translated by Tanya Leslie.
Ernaux surrounds what she calls “an extreme human experience . . . that sweeps through the body” in luminous dream imagery. “I was in a state of euphoria and acute awareness. . . . A milky waterbabe floated before my eyes, reminding me of the dog whose corpse is plunged into ether and who persists in following a group of astronauts in a novel by Jules Verne.” Can you imagine any American writer daring to portray the aftermath of an abortion this way? Ernaux goes to confess her abortion in a church but then rejects the impulse: “I felt bathed in a halo of light and for [the priest] I was a criminal.” While Kaysen is busy sealing her sexual organs in an isolation tank, Ernaux connects her experience to the wider world of class and religion and law, resulting in a startling, unusual portrait of how a vagina really lives in the world.