Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Not For the Weak of Stomach

Lessons in Taxidermy is a fast paced memoir by Bee Lavender detailing her life of illness. At the age of 12 she was diagnosed with cancer and a large tumor was removed from her neck along with most of her thyroid. Not long after that her dentist found a shadow on her jaw in her x-ray that turned out to be a cyst, unrelated to the cancer. She had surgery to remove it which meant her jaw was wired shut for a month. After a few weeks she went to the hosital sufferring from malnutrition. Not long after that she began vomiting at school, her jaw still wired shut. The school sent her home. She did not want to go to the doctor but ended up in the hospital the next day in emergency surgery because her appendix had burst. The day after her surgery her stomach was so swollen she had to go through surgery again because she had a septic infection. They had to clean the inside of her abdomen and all of her organs. She almost died. She wanted to die. She still hadn't turned 13. And it only gets worse. Repeated bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia, skin cancer, a major car accident, nearly bleeding to death after the birth of her first child and there is still more. The book is one horror after another. One wonders how anyone could live through so much. But she did and does. The writing itself is crisp and enjoyable. But look past the horrors and there isn't much there. She does not do much reflecting. She declares herself a freak; dares the reader to call her a freak like the doctors and her classmates did:

My primary identity is found in my body, in the scars, in the injuries and injustice and disease and decay. My genetic code conveys the simple truth that I'm a freak; no other information about me is relevant. But nobody can see that now. The clothes and family and job act as refraction, creating an illusion to distract people from seeing the truth.
The book breaks the illusion while it creates another one--the illusion of a person who appears to be just fine in spite of it all. Because throughout the book is a feeling on underlying anger. I felt a bit dirty and guilty after finishing the book, like a gawker who stood around after a horrible accident and did nothing but watch. I wanted to look away from time to time but it was too fascinating and I couldn't. I don't know which is more repulsive, all that Bee Lavender has gone through or me not being able to put the book down.