The Word Made Flesh: That Time I Gave Cancer to a Character, Who was Me
By Ben Reed
After nine years of putting my English degree to work in the service industry—as a bartender, mostly—I decided to enroll in graduate school at a nearby public university, in what I’d been told was a very good but underpublicized MFA program.
In my third year, I took a course titled “First Novels.” Among several debuts, we read Eric Puchner’s Model Home, in which a teenager named Dustin watches as his girlfriend’s sister Taz strips off her clothes and intentionally dives into a beautiful but undoubtedly carcinogenic reservoir of industrial waste. Through a shocking act of detached fatalism, she was probably giving herself cancer—roughly equivalent to committing suicide on an installment plan.
I contributed to my classmates’ various expressions of unease and critical skepticism about Taz’s toxic swim, but internally her act did not seem wholly alien to me. I had been diagnosed with cancer the year before, and I had recently come to believe that I had caused it.
Let me step back.
Before graduate school, there was this short story I tried to write. It never came together, and I’m now certain I know why: because it was an idea story. The conventional understanding is that writers come by good stories through epiphany, some otherworldly or uncontrolled event. A rogue sentence appears before them, fully formed, out of the ether; through happenstance they overhear a compelling bit of dialogue between two strangers; they’re told an anecdote and instinctually perceive a way to make the narrative more compelling. The point is, starting a short story is supposed to be an organic and vaguely magical process. The writer who takes a pet topic and clinically constructs a narrative around it is dooming himself to a boring and facile story. For good stories, there is a prerequisite quantity of mystery. I learned this the hard way.
As an English major who wanted to be a writer, I quickly maxed out on creative writing and modern literature courses. After that, cultural anthropology became my overriding focus. The area that interested me most was medical anthropology, specifically, culture-bound syndromes—what are sometimes alternately called culture-specific diseases, or folk illnesses.
There are a number of distinct culture-bound syndromes. There is koro, endemic to some Chinese and Southeast Asian cultures, in which the afflicted become convinced that their genitals are withdrawing into their body and will soon disappear. There is latah, also observed in Southeast Asia, where individuals who experience an emotional shock succumb to fits of jumping and hysterical laughing or shrieking. Dhat, in India, affects men who believe they are becoming impotent and are passing semen in their urine. There is brain fag, noted in Nigeria, in which stressed-out students come down with intense but medically inexplicable pain in their head, neck, and eyes. Similar to this is Ataque de nervios, which afflicts people of Iberian descent in the Caribbean, causing them to experience dissociative fits of screaming and shouting and crying.
To the day-tripping undergraduate anthropologist ca. 2001, the conventional attitudes seemed to indicate that culture-bound syndromes were exotic curiosities, proto-religious occultism, a residue of something pre-Axial. The West often thinks itself inoculated to culture-bound syndromes by virtue of our belief in empirical science, and our less rational yet doggedly dualist approach to the mind-body problem—perceiving the mind to be fundamentally distinct from the body, in this case presupposing a conceptual firewall between psychological complaints and somatic illnesses of the brain. Except of course that there are all manner of Western phenomena that could quite easily qualify as culture-bound syndromes: demonic possession, speaking in tongues, Morgellons, and Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (e.g., people who believe they’re allergic to Wi-Fi).
My big idea was that even though culture-bound syndromes are understood as singular and exceptional pathologies, they are also indicators of group identity. Illness can signify membership.
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BEN REED’s essays have appeared in The Texas Review, The Southern Quarterly, and online at The Millions. His short fiction has appeared in West Branch, Pank, Blue Mesa Review, and online at Tin House. He teaches English and literature at Texas State University.