Don't be surprised if you finish Susanna Kaysen's intriguing memoir, The Camera My Mother Gave Me, in one sitting. Not only is it a small book only 176 pages but it is a startlingly intimate look at the limits of medicine and the role of sexuality in our identity.
Kaysen made headlines with her previous memoir, Girl, Interrupted, the 1993 bestseller that chronicled her two-year stay in a mental institution. Her first book provided candid details about the parallel universe of mental illness, and in Camera, Kaysen again toys with societal taboos by describing the medical ordeal she endured when something went wrong with her vagina.
With terse writing and a wry sense of humor, Kaysen describes a months-long litany of doctor visits as she tries to find a cure for her constant vaginal pain. Her ailment, which she likens to a little dentist drilling a little hole, stumps a host of specialists. They prescribe a variety of treatments, from vinegar rinses to tea baths, from biofeedback to antidepressants, all to no avail. Kaysen may be short on some details, omissions that leave the reader feeling a bit adrift (Where does she live? What does she do for a living?), but readers will be drawn in by her ingenuous confessions. She's brutally honest about her relationship with her unnamed live-in boyfriend. Now that I didn't want to have sex, though, we got into trouble, she writes. Their relationship deteriorates into constant fighting and even violence as his forced abstinence causes major friction.
Kaysen doesn't drift into explicit or intentionally shocking territory; she remains witty and plainspoken throughout the whole medical ordeal. Girl, Interrupted dared to bring the question, What is crazy? into the open, and Camera is sure to make waves with the provocative issues it raises. What does it mean for a woman when she no longer feels desire? "Sex really is the basis of everything . . . when eros goes away, life gets dull," Kaysen writes. And what can you do when medical science can't find a cure?
Kaysen, 52, is already being criticized for taking autobiography to a new level of exposure with her personal confessions. But this intimate investigation explores bigger issues like doctor-patient relationships and sex versus love. Her account is sure to fascinate readers and keep them blushing as well.