In 1921, John B. Watson, a former president of the American Psychological Association, joined the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency. He realized that human behavior could be influenced by subliminal methods that bypass conscious awareness, and he applied this methodology to make a fortune advertising goods like cigarettes and coffee. Around the same time, Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, was applying the psychoanalytic concept of the unconscious, Pavlov’s behaviorism, and group psychology to the first public relation campaigns. Bernays would go on to pioneer a propaganda model he called the “engineering of consent”: “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind,” he proposed, “is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?”
Almost a century later, Anne Boyer has written: “[W]e knew that something was wrong, that the world was wrong (catastrophically), that we were wrong (catastrophically), that something (anything) was catastrophically wrong everywhere.” This is from her beautiful new memoir, The Undying, which describes “an education in pain and that education’s political uses” owing to a diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer. Boyer’s treatment was as unrelenting as the cancer found in her breast, requiring intensive chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. Now in remission, she was left with heart, nerve, and brain damage. The Undying is the spellbinding result of a brilliant mind confined to the sickbed, facing the destruction of her body and her routine life. Informing every element of the text is the question of what literature can “do” for the living and the dying; what art, as a whole, is obligated to do in the service of the world.
This is not an abstract question for Boyer. One section of The Undying begins with a line from the Aeneid — “If heaven I cannot bend, then hell I will arouse” — which she credits to the “epigraph to Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams.” The suppressed material of our unconscious, Freud hypothesized, cut off from internal expression, will well up and forcefully flood our conscious mind through our dreams. What Boyer’s cancer reveals from inside her, with radical intimacy, is the infiltration of capitalism within our very bodies. Boyer had no genetic markers or hormonal causes for breast cancer; it came, so to speak, from the world itself, from exposure to radiation and carcinogens. Regardless of its sources, breast cancer will manifest the world in the individual body. “The collection of ills we call breast cancer,” Boyer writes, is more or less likely to kill you based on your age, your wealth, your skin color, and whether or not you are married, along with a thousand other vectors of power. That hegemony can be embodied as a mortal illness brings Boyer into fresh proximity with her body’s latency and porousness. What Boyer and her breast cancer have in common is a brutally frank articulation of what festers in silence and sublimation. They are both hell-raisers.
Breast cancer, Boyer argues, will look different throughout history as power changes hands, but a woman diagnosed with the same kind of breast cancer as Boyer, in the same year, underwent the same treatment and died. It may be unique to each body in time, but it is alike in what Boyer reminds us Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick deemed “the brutal impositions of gender.” Sedgwick died of breast cancer in 2009, at 58.
In 2015, with Garments Against Women, Boyer imbues the voices of poets and philosophers with the precarity of her life as a working single mother, turning away from the logic of capital, productivity, and the obligation to be happy. The Undying is another refusal, of equal eloquence and poignance: “I would rather write nothing at all than propagandize for the world as it is.” But the difficulty with capitalism is that it eventually appropriates countercultural forms, and radical innovations are reduced to mere aesthetics as we move further from a historical moment. Yet, the idea of an “alternative” is always vital to radical efforts, and Boyer makes it her responsibility to write one. The explicit challenge of The Undying is to find a way to write about breast cancer that does not merely replicate existing narratives, nor add to the din of “awareness.” Primarily, Boyer accomplishes this by stripping down her writing. If capitalist power in the United States in the 21st century relies on its replication through subliminal channels, Boyer favors a writing style that brings every element of the text to the fore. Her motives in writing The Undying are plainly stated. “Everyone who brings you water or food is also now loading a gun,” she commands of herself in an early section. The directness is part request for complicity and part implication. Yet Boyer writes with such power, grace, and economy that The Undying is nearly impossible to put down.
Certain rhetorical conventions Boyer rejects outright. When one considers the rhetoric around breast cancer to “never give up” or “keep fighting,” for example, it becomes obvious that it is profitable for medical and pharmaceutical industries if patients continue pursuing treatment until they die. “Money and mystification, not knowledge or ignorance, are [the medical industry’s] cardinal points,” Boyer writes. The Undying maps histories, drawing on the voices of other writers, thinkers, and historians and holding them up to the light of our current era. And just as Dante has Virgil, Boyer assembles a host of companions for her journey through the underworld: Susan Sontag; Aelius Aristides, a healer and orator from Nero’s Rome; Audre Lorde; John Donne. The book is filled, too, with the anonymous voices of internet message boards and hospital waiting rooms.
Chapters are devoted to the chemotherapy medicine Adriamycin, which is so toxic that it can melt linoleum, and to the ways she had to make herself up so that her employers would not discover she was ill, since she has been cautioned not to let anyone know. Elsewhere she provides critiques of the Komen Foundation from within the cancer community and the history of the first double-mastectomy — a remarkable document written by the woman undergoing the procedure, who remained conscious, albeit with a veil covering her face. Amid this research are the everyday tortures of her treatment: the pain of her nails lifting from their beds, the pain of friends and lovers vanishing with her health. If chemotherapy is a “total strike” — destroying gray matter, hair follicles, digestion, memory, speech processing, bone density, and the muscles around the heart, to name only a few — The Undying is an equally thorough and devastating rejoinder.
Despite Boyer’s investment in “laying bare” the realities of breast cancer treatment, formally, her memoir (broken into 10 sections of short chapters) implicates the baring of self that many of us will associate with the confessional essay, a form which arose in part from a feminist tradition of putting oneself at the center of a work, and reversing the patriarchal gaze. But one of the tragedies of our current age of screens is the realization that exposure alone will not galvanize us. There is plenty of evidence of the suffering around us; there is, as Boyer calls it, a “saturation” of the visionary. How does that make us rethink literary conventions like “show don’t tell,” with its emphasis on the visual and the impressionistic? In contrast, Boyer never makes a spectacle of her suffering.
Consider her description of the so-called “drive-through” double mastectomy, now common in the United States. She argues with the nurse pushing release papers on her “that I could not stand, let alone leave. Then the nurses made me leave, and I left.” What else is there to say? The particularities of the encounter don’t matter as much as the consequences. Some things are so devastating that we wish to address them with as little of ourselves as possible. In response to those writing about their breast cancer, Boyer surmises “[i]t is an account of that which we must witness but which we cannot allow our eyes to see, of that which we must understand but cannot stand to think about, and of that which we know we must write down but find unbearable to read.”
It would be a mistake to take The Undying’s tone of cool remove for anything except rage at the injustices wrought by a world Boyer loves. (“Why are you full of rage?” Anne Carson asks, in Four Plays by Euripides. “Because you are full of grief.”) Like the terrible, mesmerizing pronouncements of an oracle, Boyer announces the various historic and social elements of her diagnosis, and the desperation of this experience, with almost no inflection. Yet the reader can never forget how much pain she went through to write this book. She wants to tell the truth, not grant readers the voyeur’s moral pluralism.
“I have always wanted to write the most beautiful book against beauty,” she writes, another strategic decision. Though there are certainly people who willingly consume cancer narratives, many more will be repelled by such an ostensibly sad book. She can’t afford for this to happen. Capitalism wants you to ignore your body until it cries out. And who are the ones in the most pain? The poor, the exhausted. Her un-dying will not be for nothing. “And the truth must be written for someone,” she writes, “a someone who is all of us, too, all who exist in that push and pull of what bonds of love tie us to the earth and what suffering drives us from it.”
Natasha Boyd is a writer living in Los Angeles.