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Onyx reviews: The Camera My Mother Gave Me by Susanna Kaysen

Some books are harder to review than others. Sometimes the difficulty is in discussing plot without giving too much away. With Susanna Kaysen's new memoir, the problem is a word. It's a perfectly serviceable word but one that rarely appears in a family newspaper, except perhaps on the health pages. Most writers skirt around it euphemistically. That word is v---... No, I'm going to try to do this without coming right out and saying it. Suffice to say it is the clinical word for the female sexual organ. Are you with me so far?

The reason it's hard to review The Camera My Mother Gave Me without mentioning the v-word is that this is entirely what the book is about. Leaf through the book and the word will leap up at you page after page.

As a teenager, Kaysen checked herself into a psychiatric institution. Twenty-five years later, she related this experience in her first memoir, Girl, Interrupted, adapted as a movie starring Wynona Ryder and Angelina Jolie.

Later in her life, Kaysen experienced a sudden onset of internal pain. Her second memoir relates her two-year search for relief from this omnipresent pain, technically known as 'vuvlodynia'. Over this period, she is passed back and forth among her gynecologist, a variety of alternative health practitioners, an internal medicine specialist, and a biofeedback clinic (at a hospital that reminds her of the psychiatric institute where she spent two years of her youth).

Proposed treatments include a variety of bath ingredients (vinegar, tea bags, baking soda, salt, oatmeal, estrogen cream), cortisone shots, nerve deadening, surgery (with a less than 50% success rate), Novocain swabs, antidepressants, diet modification, acupuncture, and muscle exercises. Nothing provides more than momentary relief, and many of the suggested treatments exacerbate her discomfort. After extensive research, she decides against the risky surgery. She loses faith in the medical community to solve her problem.

On a pain scale of one to five, Kaysen spent much of the two years at level two, with occasional surges to three and infrequent but excruciating periods of level-five agony. She finds solace in the company of her close friends, to whom she talks endlessly about her unsuccessful efforts to find relief. Her entire world revolves around this omnipresent pain. Her conversations glide effortlessly from gynecological detail to home furnishings.

Less comforting is her boyfriend, who is completely unsympathetic to her plight. Kaysen portrays him as demanding, self-absorbed and callous, interested only in what she can do to satisfy his sexual needs. Interestingly, Kaysen never gives him a name—not even a pseudonym—referring to him always as "my boyfriend."

The Camera My Mother Gave Me, (the title is an artistic reference to the organ in question) is an unflinching look at Kaysen's harrowing quest for satisfaction from the health profession when there appear to be no satisfactory answers. No one can explanation her pain's cause. The reader is left to wonder how much of her discomfort was "hysterical," arising from her unhappy and shallow relationship with her boyfriend.

Occasionally wry and droll, at times angry, Kaysen's odyssey leads her to explore the link between pain, sexual pleasure, emotional health and relationships. "Don't separate the mind from the body," she writes. "Don't separate even character—you can't. Our unit of existence is a body, a physical, tangible, sensate entity with perceptions and reactions that express it and form it simultaneously. Disease is one of our languages. Doctors understand what disease has to say about itself. It's up to the person with the disease to understand what the disease has to say to her."

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