Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Spare Room of One's Own

Some years ago one of my closest friends died of cancer after following the almost obligatory path of credit card seeking hokum that masquerades as 'alternative' treatment to its inevitable sad conclusion. What is it about cancer? I have asked myself that question a thousand times since Yvonne's reluctant passing. She raged and refused, as many cancer patients do, and went feeling that had she only tried a little harder, she might have beaten the bastard disease. I have always wanted to write about this ugly battle and my far from heroic response to it but have never been able to summon the internal fortitude to do so. It's a complex business watching someone singled out to die in this arbitrary fashion. Cancer compels the sufferer to fight it and the sufferer's nearest and dearest to support her forays to the Yorkshire Dales to consult faith healers whose waiting list is almost as long as their charge sheet for fraud and make fast friends with belly dance instructors who have invested in ozone boxes.

Helen Garner made the decision to present The Spare Room, her account of dealing with the mad scramble to evade death by one of her closest friends, as a fiction. The ruse is thin enough to leave us in no doubt that the bones of the truth are there, but provides that all important legal protection in case the featured snake oil vendor decides to call his bent lawyer and have his day in court. She writes in the first person, calling her narrator Helen. Helen prepares her spare room for a three week visit by Nicola while she attends the sinister Theodore Institute for some intense quackery by confidently stockpiling Manchester and draping the room with greenery,

'...straightforward tasks of love and order that I could perform with ease'

Within a week, she realises she is well out of her depth and unable to support her friend by equalling her faith in the insanely chaotic and incompetent Theodore Institute. The conflict is palpable and Garner explores it fearlessly. Cancer is different from other illnesses in that the success of the cure seems almost defined by the strength of will and faith a sufferer is prepared and able to contribute. It's like the bubonic plague where the power of prayer was considered as potent a factor in the cure as an effective lancing of the poisonous buboes. Garner examines this curious quasi-religiosity skillfully, even sensitively. She accepts Nicola is a person who 'believes in things' and does make an attempt to keep good faith with her friend, at least in the beginning.

The sparse, brittle prose of this novel, Garner's first for fifteen years, is the perfect cloth from which to cut this story. The language is often as threadbare as Nicola's old, worn and woefully inadequate clothing. In interviews, Garner said she kept chopping it back, until there were only thirty-six thousand naked words remaining. There's a lovely metaphor in the book where Helen attacks a climbing rose when Nicola's 'tremendous performance of being alive [scrapes] on [her] nerves.' The belief, the pretense, life itself all melt into farce as Nicola grabs at it like a hungry anorexic. In a wonderfully touching scene, Helen takes Nicola to see a magic show she has agreed to review. The conjurer is superb, performing a highly symbolic rope trick completely convincingly. Briefly the pair bond over what is superficially a shared experience. On the way home, Helen raves about the illusionist's skill and is annoyed when Nicola chooses to latch instead onto a tenuous thread to validate her belief system. The magician tells her 'there are many ways to make a thing disappear' which Nicola reads as an affirmation of her treatment. Helen responds by wishing she could crash the car and only Nicola would die.

At the centre of Nicola's belief that the cruel massive doses of Vitamin C and organic coffee enemas that she endures are 'driving out' her cancer, is a Pascal style wager,

'I have to trust them. I don't have a choice. I've got to keep myself revved up and directed and purposeful.'

This is the fatal error in logic that has spawned an entire industry of 'alternative' therapies and I think women are particularly vulnerable to it. It is all too easy to convince a woman that there is still work to do to deserve a place on the planet. Yvonne had breast cancer. More than any other type, cancer of the breast seems to strip a woman of her identity. Yvonne cast this metaphor in concrete, much like Nicola does at the end of The Spare Room by denying the validity of her life, expressing to me often how 'pointless' she considered it. I believe this self-evaluation stemmed partly from the impotence she felt at not being able to fix herself. She felt she'd failed, and not just in the mission she'd undertaken to get well, but in everything. Unable to bring herself to question the competency of the treatments and practitioners in whom she placed her faith, she had no choice but to take the blame for not believing enough. Before she died, she stripped her house of any evidence that her life had meaning or connected with anyone else's. She burned all her personal papers and letters and left only pictures of her childhood and youth. Her whole house was like a spare room, a room belonging to no one. 

This is a courageous book and one I'm very glad I read. When my friend was dying, I was confronted by some nasty things about myself that I now find a lot easier to face because I know I'm not the only one who was not selflessly supportive and unconditionally loving until the bitter end. There were times when I was bored rigid by the whole business and I thought the woman with the ozone box was odious and I absolutely detested her other best friend with whom I was made joint executor of Yvonne's estate and the lawyers were vile and her elderly mother was all too often a candidate for strangulation. It was an awful time. But I'm not sorry I experienced this death. I was with Yvonne when she died and I am willing to admit that at the moment of her death, I felt tremendously empowered. I felt alive and full of healthy, vital cells. I wonder if I'd have felt that way if she'd died of heart failure.


R.H. said...

Well isn't it often the case that people who laugh at quackery in good times will give it a go in desperation? Cancer cures have become a cliche, a joke, but even the normally rational will grab at anything in the end. Do you remember in the film 'Bicycle Thieves' how the husband, after a thorough searching for his bike, went as a last resort to his wife's clairvoyant whom he'd previously dismissed as a charlatan? And do you remember when a clairvoyant -a Dutch crook, was brought here to 'find' the Beaumont children? And how after lots of stalling he directed police to dig up a concrete floor where they found nothing?

All these thieves: clairvoyants, quack healers and so on, are the lowest scum. I'd string them up.

That's So Pants said...


Yes and yes. We cling to life with whatever we have. Where there is a demand there will be enterprise. I think there are people out there deluded enough to believe they can cure the sick and people desperate enough to believe them. It's very human and very sad.



R.H. said...

Yes well I'd disagree these quacks are well-meaning, particularly when their fees are are so sharp, and their patients persist in dying.

Reading the Signs said...

Hi Pants, and I reckon I've seen my fair share of quacks. And my stepmother died of leukaemia, having totally believed that she'd "heal her life" by doing it according to Louise Hay.

But it's complicated because we are more than just flesh, blood and bones and it is sometimes the case that bodies made sick by mental/psychological pain or disturbance can be made well by healing that addresses something more than just physical body.

Anyway, I looked up that book on Amazon and saw it twinned with the Tim Winton one you wrote about. So I'll get them both.

Bwca said...

Beautifully described dear Pants.
I'm glad I read 'The Spare Room' too.
Garner is a most excellent Writer.

Dame Honoria Glossop said...

I have to see a lot of doctors, and during hospital visits I sometimes meet other patients who spend loads of money on 'miracle' cures. They don't work, and a lot of the pedlars are cynical charlatans. I'm just aiming to make the most of my life while I can. They can stick their snake oil where the sun don't shine.

Ms Melancholy said...

Hey Pants,

I think I'm broadly with Signs on this one...

But a very evocative post and I shall put the book on my 'to do' list.

That's So Pants said...


Yep - one born every minute.

Hi Signs

I agree that a positive attitude is vital in getting well- the converse applies - you can make yourself ill with despair. I have a problem with the shift of responsibility, i.e. OUR miracle cure works so if it doesn't work on YOU, it means YOU'RE not trying hard enough,

Thanks BWCA

Glad you enjoyed it too.

Your Dameship

Quite. I'd be spending my money on cruises. They have doctors with morphine on boats.

Hi Ms.

Nice to hear from you. I think you'd like the way this book is put together. Garner is honest and intelligent enough to do this delicate subject justice.



BlissHill said...

I lived the same thing Pants with my sister 19 years ago. Coffee enemas, diet changes, weekends away, chiropractors, disbelief, you name it.

She died without believing it was happening, fighting to the last breath, leaving we who loved her without the opportunity to say goodbye.

I'm over it now, but there is something very noble about giving in gracefully near the end and letting family and friends in.

Very much a time of personal growth for those left behind.

Have you read 'Tuesdays With Morrie'? Wonderful!

nmj said...

Hey Pants

Another exquisite & richly detailed post from you. I am sorry that you had to watch your close friend go through this. I think what you say about breast cancer stripping a woman of her identity more than others is true. I felt almost shocked when I read that she had burned all traces of her adult self, but then when I thought about it, I understood.

Re. quackery, yes, charlatans abound, but I think people will do anything to be well again, especially when faced with terminal illness. I think it would be worse if there were nothing but conventional medicine to serve us. You certainly have to be aware of the rip-off merchants - but I personally benefited from massive doses of intravenous Vit C in 1990s, only available from a specialist ME clinic. Still it was daylight robbery, and they also gave me
germanium capsules, which could have caused liver damage, I had to be tested when this came to light...

Thanks for introducing me to Helen Garner, I had not heard of her before, I will look out for The Spare Room.

My character - also named Helen! - too wishes that there would be a car crash, but she wishes that she herself would die and everyone else be okay.


Minx said...

A friend of mine recently gave up chemical treatment in favour of the strength of the mind. A brave step but as he says - when you go to the doctor all they can give you is negativity, negative statistics and a negative outlook.

Great review - I am buying/stealing/acquiring.....

That's So Pants said...

Hi Bliss Hill

Yes. That is so true. You don't get the chance to say good-bye properly. Yvonne, as she was slipping into a coma DID have this realisation in the most horrible way and said to me bye-bye, bye-bye, like a child. It was hideous.


Interesting. I imagine ME sufferers are quite vulnerable as a new approach seems to me to be absolutely required to this disease that no one understands. Re the book - Helen Garner is brilliant - she has written several novelisations of true life events which are gripping too.

Hi Minxie

I've said this before - there are novelists who should put me on their payroll! I must write a scathing review one day. Only problem is, I'm not usually that moved to waste my time on describing books I don't like unless they are useless in a particularly inventive way - and that's rare.



R.H. said...

Give us the lowdown: how you're getting on with Miss Brownie. Did you know she had a backyard dunny built from wine casks? Alcoholics Anonymous came around and torched it -with her in it. That's how she found out those things burn so well, six of them flattened out are as good as a small log. And she'd drink that many in a day.

Ms Baroque said...

Wow. That is an amazing post.

That's So Pants said...


Thanks for info - I'll bolt the cellar door.

Hi Ms B




trousers said...

I like the brutal honesty in your words here, pants, this was compelling reading.

That's So Pants said...

Hi Trews

Thanks - I felt a lot braver after reading Garner - she's the one with the courage.



Wisewebwoman said...

Hello Pants!
Thanks for the heartfelt post, and I've made a note of Helen Garner.
Alternative medicine can be a minefield and I agree it is always deemed the patient's fault when things go wrong.
I have a daughter with MS who has gone alternative med with it and is doing very, very well (diet, osteo treatments). The thing is, of course, would she be doing the same/better on conventional?
No studies have been performed.
I am so sorry to hear of your friend and her trashing of her adult life memorabilia.
And breast cancer has taken so much from my friends who have had it (and mercifully survived - all with conventional treatments).

That's So Pants said...


I think there is a world of difference between treatable and terminal conditions - that's a whole other conversation. The Spare Room is concerned coming to terms with the inevitability of death. Glad to here your daughter is doing well. I have an uncle who has had MS for thirty years - he's doing pretty well too.



Kris said...

"It is all too easy to convince a woman that there is still work to do to deserve a place on the planet".

Ain't that the truth!

Excellent post, as per usual.