The Camera My Mother Gave Me is another memoir of sorts. Technically, the classification given above the jacket's bar code is "memoir/psychology." It reads like a dramatic novel, however, and its main protagonist is the author's vagina. ("Vagina." What a wretched word.) The title is perplexing, until you realize that it's a kind of snooty reference to a Luis Buñuel film.
Flashes of having heard bad things about the Vagina Monologues might come into your head, and the first instinct is to roll out the big red carpet for a parade of metaphors. However, upon working one's way into the text, it is clear that this book is in fact a recounting of the vagina's own drama, directly. Most plot updates are statements like, "I noticed that my vagina was hurting more than usual" and "It hurts too much to fuck." Its literalness makes sense, considering the ingrained associations and symbols already made with the female body.
The first paragraph of the book describes the vaginal state of being: "If it feels something, it is either erotically engaged or ill." A simple statement, but loaded with cultural and symbolic implications. Perhaps going to the gynecologist is more vulnerable than, say, the dentist because you are not simply concerned with the general health and function of the vagina. In some small way it is also a checkup on your symbolic properties. The state of your vagina reflects the state of your life, as do all the articles and fluids that go in and come out of it.
In Kaysen's case, her vagina "goes wrong." It begins to get irritated and painful all the time, to the point at which she is unable to screw her oppressively virile boyfriend or even drive a car for long periods of time. The memoir documents her experiences under the consultation of gynecologists, internists, alternative health experts and surgeons. Each specialist has a different hypothesis and suggested treatments, most of which either irritate the problem, involve spooky pills, or are potentially life-threatening.
Although the book does make frequent mention of the boyfriend, Kaysen's deceased mother, and a number of her friends, the focus remains unerringly on the vagina. Her interactions with these people are limited to discussions of her gynecological mystery and its effects on her lifestyle. It's actually quite a gripping tale. Vaginas don't need metaphors!
At some point however, the book reaches a logical absurdity, in which Kaysen's personality is swallowed by the ailments and sensitivities of her crotch. The only interactions with her boyfriend that she shares in her memoir are those involving their sexual stalemate. His end of the dialogue can be pretty well generalized as "Let's fuck." In the meantime, Kaysen's activities become entirely centered upon her efforts to cope with and relieve her mysterious disorder. She becomes appended to her vagina as its full-time custodian and advocate.
As Kaysen's gynecological odyssey progresses, her instincts lead her into varying mentalities with regard to how her vagina is integrated within herself. At times it seems distant, even slightly rejected, when spoken of in starkly scientific terms. At other times the tone seems to shift into a psychosomatic perspective. Changes in her life are implemented to counteract the changes inflicted by her inflamed mucous membranes. Overall, the book finds a middle ground between the two approaches, emphasizing the inextricability of psychology and physiology without simultaneously collapsing their separation.
The saga of Kaysen's vagina is occasionally interrupted by short editorial asides, such as the section titled "Why I Am Opposed to Antidepressants." Reading the book is like listening to a friend's war stories over wine. She is frank and thorough, yet her descriptions are never gratuitously gross. In fact, one would have to be pretty skittish about bodies to get the fidgets during most of this book.
Because Kaysen's disorder is rare and unexplained, the book is not intended to comfort any particular core audience of sufferers. It's also perfectly accessible for interested parties of the vagina-less population. The investigation into the psychological issues surrounding our vaginal concerns is appealing and reassuring to any woman, even if she's perfectly intact and a healthy shade of pink. Marjorie Skinner.