Chase Joynt, co-author of today’s guest blog with Dr. M. K. Bryson, will present Resisterectomy at our October 18th festival, Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500.
I announced my desire to find a collaborator for my then-still-hypothetical project Resisterectomy at every available opportunity. Lulls in dinner party conversation were filled with the always laughter-stopping question: “Does anyone know someone who has had a mastectomy and a hysterectomy who might be willing to talk about their experiences?” Anecdotes shared about eccentric distant relatives who happened to be both cancer survivors and watercolor painters were followed up with: “Do you think that person might be interested in working on a project with me?” And friends unfamiliar with the artistic process of starting a project from a place of utter-not-knowing (and/or perhaps at best “a hunch”) continued to entertain my quest suspiciously, albeit with sympathy. The most frequent reactions to my casual inquiries were blank stares and occasional bursts of conversational sarcasm directed at the seemingly impossible identifactory requirements of the project’s specificity. One day however, after lobbing the question into a blue-couch-filled Toronto living room, I was met with an animated, sarcasm-free answer: “You need to talk to my friend Mary Bryson.” Within hours of sending Mary the initial “Hello, how are you, might you be interested in chatting about these things?” e-mail, I was met with some necessary and critical resistance.
Dr. M. K. Bryson:
When I first heard from Chase (“I am looking for a woman who has had both a mastectomy and a hysterectomy.”), I was simultaneously deeply skeptical and intensely interested in his project. And even though I really did not, and do not, “feel like a woman” I assumed that because of Chase’s up-front trans* alliances, the complexities of our potential dialogue would find plausible vocabularies if not any shared experiences. I don’t in any case expect shared experiences no matter how self-evident they may appear to be. And besides, I had by then had at least a year’s worth of experiences interviewing participants in the Cancer’s Margins research project—Canada’s first ever nationally funded research project focused on LGBT experiences of breast and gynecologic cancer.
I knew several things by then about bodies, cancer, and the impact of mastectomy and hysterectomy. For one thing, my research interviews confirmed what I learned from my own cancer experiences—that for people with histories that overlap in minor or major ways with trans* health, the simple “fact” of the double-duty these surgeries take up—that mastectomy and hysterectomy are both cancer surgeries and also surgeries related to trans* health—means that these surgeries are already much more culturally complex than is typically within healthcare providers’ understanding and training. I knew that gender is very definitely implicated in how cancer patients experience cancer-related treatments and surgeries generally, and very specifically, that cancer patients’ histories of gender will shape what is meaningful about mastectomy and hysterectomy in ways that reveal the impact of trans* culture in the larger world of gender. I have always been very fond of exploring both/and relationships that organize how people located in precarious communities experience our lives and therefore, how organizations and institutions that create systems of care need to think about caring for marginalized people.
It has been two years since our first meeting, and Resisterectomy continues to tour galleries, festivals, and schools internationally. In May 2014, we were invited to present the work as a part of the Sexuality Studies Summer School at the University of Manchester. Unbeknownst to the organizers, the occasion marked the first time since its creation that we were able to talk about the work together in public. As a result of living and working on opposite coasts, we rely on Skype and DropBox for our project-related intimacies, and I often tour and speak alone. Presenting a collaborative work alone is a complicated and precarious endeavor. How can I speak to the specificities of the project without problematically narrating (and therefore truncating) the experiences of someone else? And yet simultaneously, how can I protect that person by speaking to the assumptions so easily made about their experiences on account of their physical absence from these encounters? After our presentation in Manchester, Mary approached me at the reception with a smile, “I didn’t know you talked about the fact that this project was hard!” I smiled, “If there is one thing that every person in every room has thus far agreed upon, it is that talking about this project is hard,” I said.
I have been thinking for a while about the academic work that I am doing concerning cancer, gender, and marginalization under the general umbrella of “An Archive of the Talking Dead.” There is something absolutely unique in my experience of talking about cancer research and cancer experiences compared to talking about any other difficult, painful, or harrowing experience. North America is in many ways a culture obsessed with cancer and with mortality—and specifically, with avoiding cancer despite the fact that almost everything we do, like aging or driving a car, is something over which we have almost no control, and which increases our risk of cancer. In Resisterectomy, there is for most people who view the multimedia installation, a story of a trans* person (Chase) and a story of a cancer patient (Mary), both of whom have had a mastectomy and a hysterectomy. But that’s not how I see it at all. I am a trans* person for whom, having a mastectomy did double-duty as breast cancer surgery. However, when Chase and I are in the same space – either because our photographs are hanging on the wall, or our faces broadcast on a screen where the Resisterectomy video feed is playing, then the inevitable assumptions about Who-is-What overwrite what can be made visible in those spaces, and the play with what might be possible is cloaked by conventions. And so there we are.
What is a residual for me, every time I hear about one of Chase’s adventures installing Resisterectomy, or talking about the art with folks, is that he and I have enacted a mode of caring for each other’s responses. Resisterectomy then acts as a kind of Live Case History where a very diverse group of people gets to think, again, about things—about stories—that might benefit from a hell of a lot more energy and creativity. Chase and I took a huge risk in just saying, “Hello. Let’s compare notes. And actually, let’s mix up these stories we think we already know how to tell.” Let’s take great care in the curation of difficult stories—from the Archive of the Talking Dead… Any doctors or nurses in the house? Pay special attention. How could you talk to your patients as if you might be very surprised to learn who they are, and how their life stories are impacted by the changes health inevitably brings? And most of all, learn to enjoy how hard it needs to be. Learn to love what you don’t yet know about me.