'The Camera My Mother Gave Me'

by Stephanie Dickison


Vagina Monologue

cover art

The Camera My Mother Gave Me

Susanna Kaysen

(Alfred A. Knopf)

Ahem. I don’t know how to say this other than to be blunt—this book is about vaginas. Well, not a whole whack of them. Just one. Susanna’s. Yep. She wrote an entire book about it. Now granted, she did (maybe still does) have a condition and perhaps this will go on to help all those women out there with burning, bumpy v’s, but I can’t imagine this being a very popular Christmas gift this year. When you pass a book along, it says not only something about you but also about the person you give it to. What could you possibly think of your friend if you gave her this (unless of course she had a burning, bumpy v)?

Susanna Kaysen is one person whose mission seems to be to put her life on the page. Famous for Girl, Interrupted, she is someone whose autobiographical material fills volumes. Me, I have nothing. No bumps, no meds, just a fridge full of vegetables and tonnes and tonnes of books. Not much of a gripping tale, I know. So, if I had led the kind of life Susanna’s led, I would probably be just as compelled to write about it. But vaginas (and sore, red ones to boot)?

The story is this—Susanna’s got some mysterious vaginal condition that leaves her red, bumpy, and writhing in pain much of the time. She can’t wear pants or drive when it’s at its worst. Enter carpenter-boyfriend who can’t keeps his hands out of her pants and this leads to a troubled relationship. He can’t understand why she isn’t trying harder to please him and she can’t understand why he can’t just leave her alone until she feels better—emotionally and physically. The book follows her travels from gynaecologist to alternative health centre to internist to surgeon to pharmacy to biofeedback and flips back to fights with carpenter-boy back at home.

A couple of things about this book:

Susanna is crazybrave for having written this book. Like Girl, Interrupted, it shows she is willing to open her life, her pain, and her legs in order to break through society’s taboos. Kudos, Soose. As well, talking about vaginas, while it is not the taboo it once was, I have a feeling that it will be some time before it is okay to talk about bumpy, red, painful ones. The other thing—the book contains a lot of, uh, information. She has a vulvologist. Did you know there were people doing this—for a living? Did you know that “[t]he normal pH of the vagina is between 3.8 and 4.2?” Ugh.

However, the writing is clear and focused. And she has this way of being completely honest and slightly comical in the same breath that I wanted more of in the pages to come:

That night I had trouble sleeping. My vagina was hot, as if it had a fever. I made a tent out of the covers by drawing my knees up; then I arranged an air vent on the side to cool things down. That helped, but it was a hard way to sleep. My tent-and-vent would collapse and then my vagina would overheat and I’d wake up.

For that, the book deserves accolades. For coming right out and telling the world about her soreness, her redness, and what she endured—“Here are the things I put into my vagina over the next two months: vinegar rinses; saltwater soaks; a jelly formulated with the correct vaginal pH, and estrogen cream.”—she deserves an award for courage and, goddamnit, proper medical treatment!!

I can’t say it’s an easy read (Girls, I promise: The legs WILL be crossed throughout), but it is an interesting one. I just can’t think of anyone I could give it to.

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