A Powerful Intersection: Pairing Memoir And Science Writing

Jun 29, 2017

I write science, but I read memoir.

The pairing of memoir and science writing can be an excellent conduit for learning: What may strike a reader as somewhat abstract in science writing may become more real when encountered in a searing narrative of a person's own highly specific experience.

Here's a look at a trio of recent memoirs that involve three topics I've written about at 13.7 -- fatness, cancer and gender (though really, gender is threaded through all three):

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

In Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, published this month, Roxane Gay writes about her decision, in the years following a highly traumatic gang rape she suffered at the age of 12, to grow her body to a size large and strong enough to protect her (she hoped) from hurt. I was blown away by Gay's honesty as she describes what it's like to be a very large woman in a society that wants women not taking up much space.

"I hate how I am extraordinarily visible but invisible," she writes at one point, and, later, "My body is treated like a public space."

Even during her toughest times, Gay notes, she had a safety net, her family. Her parents and her siblings loved (and love) her fiercely at any size. Yet size did matter to them, she writes:

"They mean well, my parents. They love me. They understand the world as it is, and how there is no room for people of my size.... They have been actively pursuing the problem of my body since I was fourteen years old...My family's constant pressure to lose weight made me stubborn, even though the only person I was really hurting was myself... I became resentful that the only thing anyone ever wanted to focus on was my body, always unruly and disappointing. I shut down completely."

Gay's shutting down (for a certain period in her life) reinforces what anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh told me in an interview based on her research with college students:

"All of us are making war on fat through constant fat-talk. Yet because very few people can lose weight and keep it off, the pervasive fat-talk does not have its intended effect; instead, it is causing terrible, yet often, invisible harm."

Gay was, in fact, and is, harmed by this talk; this comes across with painful clarity in Hunger. I left the book with a new visceral awareness of what it takes to get up every today and go out into a world steeped in fat-talk.

The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying

Nina Riggs's The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying, also published this month, isn't as famous as Gay's book — but I hope it becomes so.

When Riggs was diagnosed at age 37 with "one small spot" of cancer in the breast, she sat with a genetic counselor who sketched out her family tree: "There are squares and circles, the cancer victims marked with Xs. Lots of Xs."

During her treatment, Riggs's mother, with whom she was close, died of multiple myeloma, a blood cancer.

Riggs herself endures mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation as she parents, along with her husband John Duberstein, two young boys, expecting — as her oncologists expected — that that single spot would be zapped away. It wasn't, and she reports the increasing nightmare, one inexorable step after another into a world of incurable illness, with a steady voice that invites us to feel the emotion without becoming swamped by it.

"The tumor is still there," she writes of her post-chemo scan. "It is not smaller. In fact, it is bigger than they first thought. It seems to reach in a thousand directions. And, on top of that, there is another tumor a few centimeters away that has surfaced from some depth previously unseeable...The ground shifts — it just does. I text John in the waiting room and know his footing is shifting, too."

And later in the book, when relentless back pain leads to an MRI, and news of metastasis and what that means:

"[The boys] probably already know what's up and are waiting for us to figure out how to say it. Their very existence is the one dark piece I cannot get right within all this. I can let go of a lot of things: plans, friends, career goals, places in the world I want to see, maybe even the love of my life. But I cannot figure out how to let go of mothering them."

For Riggs, cancer wasn't a gift, as some popular discourse would have it. It wasn't for me either, as I noted when writing how science tells us that the pathways for cancer are unpredictable in each individual, as the pathway certainly was for Riggs's "one small spot."

I'm one of the infinitely lucky ones, though. I'm here and healthy; I can still write about cancer. Riggs completed her memoir in January 2017 and died the next month.

Born Both: An Intersex Life

Born Both: An Intersex Life by Hida Viloria, published in March, is the memoir I'm into now. "For the first twenty years of my life," Viloria writes on page one, "I thought I was, physically speaking, an ordinary girl."

In her 20s, Viloria reflects on certain physical characteristics, and desires, and wonders... and then at age 26 encounters a newspaper article with a headline "Both and Neither" about people who are intersex. Intersex people, as I write here, may have mixed genitalia or chromosomal patterns that diverge from those usually associated with being male or female.

Viloria writes about that moment of discovery:

"Jesus. Is this the word I've always lacked? Is this the word to describe my very private, secret difference — the difference that has become more and more confusing over the years?...

You could have put an article in front of me about aliens being discovered working in the White House and it would have been less shocking to me than this information."

Viloria certainly isn't alone: Even as the world learns more about people of various gender identities, the facts surrounding being intersex are still, well, alien to many. Memoirs like Viloria's will, I hope, contribute to changing that.

These books by Gay, Riggs, and Viloria tell stories that should be heard, that lift up and give meaning to scientific facts of variable bodies, diseases, and genders — and how we respond to them.


Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals, and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's new book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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