Talking to Allison Gruber about Not Surviving Cancer and Her New Book, You’re Not Edith
Two months after moving to Milwaukee for a job with benefits, and three days after her new health insurance kicked in, Allison Gruber detected a small mass in her left breast that turned out to be stage two breast cancer. She was 34 years old.
Her subsequent experiences – enduring treatment, losing friends, and finding unlikely allies – form the heart of her smart, candid, and hilarious new collection of autobiographical essays. Most notable of those surprising allies was her adopted Dachshund puppy, Bernie. Adopted at the peak of her chemotherapy treatment, Bernie’s entrance into Gruber’s life was marked by a night of explosive diarrhea (his) and vomiting. Bernie was definitely not the dream dog Gruber had envisioned: a quiet, well-behaved fluffy white Maltese she’d pre-named “Edith.”
And yet, Bernie became so much more: a comfort, a companion, an occupation, and, ultimately, a commitment to life.
Gruber’s essays range in subject from her teenaged obsession with primatologist Dian Fossey, to her father’s mental illness to her cancer treatment, to her lesbian dating life. Through them she explores questions of identity, faith, loyalty, transformation, and discovery. The resulting book is sometimes bawdy, sometimes heartbreaking, oftentimes both; a wholly engaging read by a compassionate, self-aware, brilliant new voice.
Ms. Fit: You starting writing essays before you were diagnosed with cancer. What drew you to the form?
Allison Gruber: I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and by the time I started grad school, I considered myself pretty exclusively a poet. And while I think my background in the writing and study of poetry continues to inform my process, and influence my rhetorical “ear,” as it were, as an artist, I grew disillusioned with the form itself. By the time I was done with my MFA, I was pretty much done with poetry, and doing a bit with the live reading scene in Chicago.
Much of what I wrote for the first portion of the collection – you know, the non-cancer stuff – I wrote for those live readings. I had grown weary of super-cerebral, experimental writing – I mean, I was bored by that, and I just wanted to straight up tell stories.
I wanted my readers, or listeners, or whatever not to feel alienated by the work, and I wanted them to laugh, and as it turned out, I was good at telling stories.
MF: What changes did you notice in your process did you notice after your diagnosis? You describe some of your doctor visits in great detail. Did you keep a journal during your treatments? If so, what did that practice reveal to you? Looking back, do you notice anything that you weren’t aware of at the time?
AG: During treatment, I kept a blog that was really just for friends and family to keep tabs on me, but also for myself, so I could chronicle what was happening – and I did, in great, tedious detail. I wrote every single day from, like, a week after my diagnosis all the way through chemo, and to the very last day of my radiation therapy. So I suppose that was a kind of journal, even though I was conscious of having a readership.
Ultimately, when I was writing about my experience with cancer in a more formalized way, those entries proved very helpful – we forget shit, which I guess is the whole point of keeping a journal: to not forget shit.
I didn’t notice many changes in my process, post diagnosis, but I did discover that writing was, for me, much more than just “making stuff.” I realized, when I was sick, that writing was – and always had been — part of my own survival, an essential way for me to “make sense” of life.
Also, there’s a freakish loneliness that comes with being a cancer patient, and I think being able to write about what was happening to me, to my world, helped me feel less lonely, helped me not to completely sink into a deep depression.
MF: Although this book is anchored, in some sense, in your cancer diagnosis, you also write about your childhood, some of your youthful obsessions (with certain girls, with Dian Fossey, with Virginia Woolf), and your family’s struggles with your father’s mental illness. Was there any difference in how you approached these different subjects? What subjects were you the most afraid of? Which did you approach with the most gusto?
AG: I was afraid of writing about my family, for sure. I think any time you’re writing about the living, and the living whom you love, it’s scary. I mean, it’s essential to tell the truth in creative non-fiction, to sort of write unflinchingly about your subjects (I think), but when you’re writing about people you care about, you love, there’s a legitimate concern that one might be betraying a trust.
So that was scary to me. But if you’re going to write memoir, I mean, unless you’re writing memoir about how you grew up isolated in a hole in the ground, other people’s stories are going to overlap with your own. So I think that fear just comes with the territory.
I have no problem, no reservations, about writing about myself. I don’t worry about making myself seem a fool, or about laughing at myself – I don’t take myself all that seriously, so that makes telling certain stories easy. Like, I don’t give a fuck who knows that I was an idiot in high school, or that I’m missing a nipple.
So, really, anything that didn’t too squarely center on other people was easy. That’s one thing I like about creative nonfiction – like, I’m pretty reserved in “real life,” but on the page I can be open and raw and insanely candid. It feels kind of metal.
MF: There are several points in these narratives – even while they are describing the most difficult and heartbreaking circumstances – that are bust-out-laughing funny. Did the humor come naturally to you during the process, or was it more of a “one day we’re going to laugh about this” recognition?
AG: Many of the stories were just inherently funny to me. And humor has always been my default coping mechanism. Nothing, really, about my life feels so sacred or special that it can’t be laughed at. So, I mean, even – maybe especially so – when I had cancer, I was relying on humor to get me through. I was looking for what was funny and absurd, because even in shitty moments, it’s not all bleak.
I think people often confuse humor with “making light,” or being dismissive, and as I see it, humor often adds gravity to circumstances in a really profound way. The trick is translating that, making — on the page — that wonderful sensation of laughing through tears of hurt or fear or disappointment, and doing so without it coming off as “twee” or “sassy” (I fucking cannot abide “sassy”).
This doesn’t mean I go through life chuckling to myself about everything I’ve been through. I can still think about shit I experienced twenty years ago, or two years ago, and burst into tears.
Hurt and fear is still hurt and fear, even when you’re laughing. But what I’ve learned to do as a person and as a writer is to see some of my life’s worst moments as some of the most fruitful trees of dark humor, and I love dark humor – the drier, the blacker, the better.
The fact is, if they’re un-ironically playing “Stayin’ Alive” in radiation oncology and you can’t take notice and laugh about that shit, you’re done for.
But I’m still pissed about having had cancer. That was total bullshit.
MF: Your cancer treatment required a nipplectomy and you gorgeously described coming to terms with losing your nipple in an essay that you published in Ms. Fit. In what other ways did your cancer diagnosis affect your sense of identity, as a woman, a lesbian, a writer, a human…?
AG: For some people, and this is in no way a value judgment, cancer or cancer survival becomes their identity, and I fervently rejected that idea. I was not going to be “racing for the cure” or putting fucking pink ribbons on my car. I had thirty-four years to carve out my own identity, and I didn’t have any more space left to incorporate “cancer warrior” or whatever.
As a human being, I think cancer made me a bit more compassionate. Spending a good deal of time in a cancer center really drives home how fragile every one of us is. It’s humbling. In a way, and I’m loathe to use this word, it was a “gift.” Because I think we all need the wind knocked out of our sails now and then – preferably not by cancer, but still . . . I think we go through our lives thinking we’re some great “exception” or super-special snowflake, and sometimes, we need a good grounding to remind us of our humanity.
Cancer grounded me, and I definitely feel like I came away from my treatment with a greater capacity for empathy, and a lower threshold for bullshit. I mean, you spend a minute or two locked in a real staring contest with your own mortality, and it becomes real clear what’s important and what doesn’t matter at all.
After cancer treatment, after the surgeries and all that shit, I really didn’t think I’d ever date again – much less marry. I figured any potential lover would be freaked by my medical history, or skeeved out by my physical “alterations.” Maybe I was just projecting, I don’t know. But after all that, I sort of regarded my sexuality as something that “used to be.”
Being a lesbian, for me, is definitely about more than just sleeping with women, it’s about being woman-identified, and prioritizing women – in this sense, it’s very much conflated with feminism for me – so it wasn’t like I didn’t see myself as a lesbian anymore, rather, I saw myself as a – I don’t know – “non-practicing” dyke? It wasn’t even that I was tortured by my own physical changes, I really wasn’t; it’s just that I presumed any potential romantic interests would be.
Then I met Sarah (my wife) and she was somewhat confounded by the fact that I believed I’d never date again, but she’s probably the least superficial person I know. And she’s also someone who has had her share of struggles, some related to the body, so I think she was better equipped than most to be “cool” with where I was, and where I had been.
MF: Your start with Bernie, your dachshund, was far from illustrious. Did you ever second guess whether he was going to be worth the trouble?
AG: Ha! Yes. The very first day. Truth be told, the entire first two weeks with Bernie I wondered, many times per day, “What the fuck have I done?”
MF: What role did Bernie play in your life as you were enduring treatments?
AG: Bernie, not unlike teaching, distracted me from myself. He had needs that demanded attention, and so each day, my focus had to shift away from my condition in order to tend to those needs. Also, dogs are very much in the present, which was something I was trying hard to do as I was going through cancer treatment – so he taught me a lot about staying in the moment. He also made me laugh. I mean so much of our early relationship was patently absurd – I had no business having a fucking dog at that period in time. We’d get stares, too – the bald dyke and the wiener dog. We were quite a sight to behold.
Most of all, he was really good company. My friends and family were all in Chicago, so I was alone a lot during that time. And you have to understand, he was just a puppy when I got him – I think the vet said he was “six months if he’s a day” – and he was so chill while I was sick. Like, he saved up all his puppy energy for when I was well.
I really do believe dogs are intuitive that way. I mean, aside for some “accidents” and a bit of barking, Bernie was on his best behavior for me during my treatment. On days when I had my chemo, and was particularly rolled flat, he’d lay on the pillow above my head and just rest there with me until it was time for him to go out. It was actually pretty awesome. Dogs are awesome.
MF: You describe yourself as a feminist in the book, and certainly take several feminist positions throughout the text, whether exploring your role as a woman in academia, your childhood obsession with Dian Fossey, your preferences for androgyny, and non-suffering of sexist comments. Can you identify any ways that your feminism informed your treatment and recovery process?
AG: Feminism, I think, saved my fucking life – I mean, a long, long time ago.
I really don’t know how I would have navigated the world as a woman, as a lesbian without feminist thought and theory. It informs everything, even my relationship with my wife, who is also very much a feminist.
In terms of cancer treatment and feminism – I guess being a feminist caused me to notice some things that I might have been more comfortable NOT noticing – like the way breast cancer patients are infantilized, the way the disease itself has been packaged and commercialized and sold as a cause to “save the boobs,” but not so much the women attached to them. It’s fucked up.
That said, being a feminist definitely helped me with some of the physical changes I endured – like losing my hair, losing my nipple, because I knew my physicality didn’t define me. I mean, I could live without a nipple. I could give fuck all what strangers thought when they saw me shuffling around Milwaukee bald as a boiled egg.
Feminism gave me, from my earliest encounters with it as a teenager, a firm grounding in who I was as a female human being – and my identity, since then, has never been contingent on what my various body parts look like.
I think for a lot of women, and rightly so, the experience of losing parts of their body or losing their hair is agonizing, just fucking killer on a psychological level. I mean, I saw so many women at the cancer center who were so sick, and still terribly concerned with their outward appearance – or concerned with “looking well.”
I get it, but I wonder how much, for those women, their suffering was intensified by this implicit, gender-based pressure to “look good” when you feel like fucking shit emotionally and physically, and I wonder if feminism helps with that. I don’t know. It did for me.
MF: Since the book has been published, you got married, and your family moved from Milwaukee to Flagstaff, Arizona. That’s quite a lot of change! In what other ways has your identity changed since writing these essays? Do you identify as a survivor? Are you currently 100% cancer-free?
I think, since writing these essays, my biggest identity change, or shift, or whatever you want to call it now comes from the fact that I’m someone’s “wife.” That’s an utterly bizarre concept to me. I mean, until I met Sarah, I never wanted to be married, never wanted to be anyone’s “wife.”
So that’s been fodder for newer work – unexpectedly falling in love, sharing a living space, and figuring out what it means to be in a marriage, to be someone’s wife.
As of today, I’m in remission. Breast cancer recurrence usually happens within the first five years after diagnosis, and I’m a little over four years out, so I’m continuing to be vigilant and hoping for the best, which is all any of us can do – cancer or not.
I definitely don’t identify as a “survivor” – in fact, I reject that term. I mean, first of all “survivor” suggests one is past an experience – and the specter of cancer haunts me every fucking day. It always will.
Moreover, aren’t we all survivors, whether or not we’ve had a bad diagnosis? Survivors of heartbreak, bad breaks, shitty childhoods, air travel, busy intersections . . . we’re all survivors.