Reading Susan Gubar

Susan Gubar is an English professor at Indiana University, now retired due to the onset of ovarian cancer. With her longtime collaborator Sandra Gilbert, Gubar edited the 1985 Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, which is where I first came across her name. She has many other books and publications. Most recently, she’s been writing a piece in the New York Times every two months or so about her experience of living with cancer. She’s a wonderful writer, and although I currently suffer no such life threatening illnesses, I am drawn occasionally to reading about the experiences of people who do. My respect for Gubar’s other work drew me to read the Times pieces each time one appears.

I knew that Gubar had a book out in 2012, Memoir of a Debulked Woman, which I’d avoided reading. Her New York Times writing largely skates over the grim physical details of her illness; the memoir dives right in. “Debulking” is the surgical procedure in which attempts are made to remove the cancer — usually, surgeons get much but not all, leaving a condition called “suboptimal debulking”. Isn’t that a mouthful? In Gubar’s case, the surgeon also accidentally nicked her colon, creating a site which developed into a massive infection needing extensive treatment with further gruesome procedures. Honestly, it’s a wonder the woman isn’t dead.

After sticking to the Times writing for quite awhile, I decided that if Gubar could live with the debulking, I could read about it. I downloaded that memoir, along with her 2018 Late-Life Love: A Memoir. The latest book is about her second marriage to the man who has supported her through ten years of grave illness, alternated with periods where she is able to write, lecture, and support her remaining doctoral students. She is also a wife, mother and stepmother, grandmother, friend, academic collaborator and scholar.

This is one remarkable woman. Most remarkably, after all she’s gone through, she’s well enough to write, and to have a life and to risk love.

The debulking book is pretty hard to read, although once started, I was determined to finish. The take-away is that you don’t know at the outset all that you’re going to have to endure, or you might not start. Nobody gives you a list of procedures that might have to follow the initial operation. If they did, you might choose comfort care and call it a day. But once down the path, and because you love life, you will likely keep going as long as there is life to be lived. It’s a sobering message, but in the end, a hopeful one.

The late-life love book, which I’ve just started, is touching and moving. I might recommend skipping the first memoir and going right to this one, although I suppose it’s the suffering they’ve endured together that makes late life love so sweet.

If you like fine writing from women of a certain age, Gubar is just the thing. Find her work in the New York Times, and then decide if you’d like more.

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