In 1959, I had cancer. I was three years old at the time. It came on suddenly and without warning. My dad, the engineer, designed a treatment delivery system that focused the radiation specifically in the hard palate of my mouth, where the cancer was located. First, they fried it, then they cut it. No chemotherapy – it wasn’t yet available. That was 49 years ago (my math – it is superb!).

In direct contradiction to predictions made by teams of medical experts, I did not die, the cancer did not recur, I’m not a deformed monster, and I did not spend my life with a brain cooked by radiation like a vegetable tempura. Far from it.

But here is the family myth I want to share: According to this myth, I am an amazing princess goddess of steel, given superpowers by the radiation itself. Like Spiderman, Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk. This was the story I was told, over and over again. The script: “You had cancer, such a tragedy. However, you were treated with Radiation (capital R), which means you have special and advanced protection against virtually all other diseases, and it also means you will never get Cancer (capital C) Again!”

This message was a logical extension of the power of positive thinking business that so pervaded my grandparents’ generation. My parents, themselves, were more fixated on how this illness would limit my choices as a damaged female. Their script was something more like: “Thank God you’re smart, cause you’ll never get married with a face like that!” (For the record, I’m actually kind of cute.)

I undoubtedly absorbed both messages, both of them flawed but incorporated into my sense of self. My funny-looking, super-charged special-yet-doomed self. In my adolescence, I suddenly realized that both myths were a lot of hooey, and damn that made me mad. I started wearing black and thinking about mortality a lot. Early goth really suited me.

It’s interesting to me that in our culture, intellect and appearance are set against one another. In the schema that informed my growing up me, female and imperfect, it was always smart vs. pretty, pretty vs. strong. Contradictory. Challenging.

How do we raise our girl children and our boy children to accept the blend of characteristics and circumstances that inform our sense of self? How do we learn to acknowledge, honor and even love the imperfections of self and other?

It is no surprise that in my middle years, I have chosen to work with people with disabilities, where my once “tragic” differences have transmogrified recognizably into the strengths of compassion and empathy. What surprises me more is how many years I worked in advertising, where appearance reigns supreme, and how well I proved myself in that setting, against a jury of my cultural peers. That’s me, Wonder-Spider-Hulking-Woman. Look out.


One Response to “Incredible-Hulking-Wonder-Spider-Woman”

  1. You are cute. And smart, erudite (but I’ve told you that before), sassy, strong, and incredibly creative. I love that you have your own myth, even though it caused confusion and pain later on. It’s not surprising, either, that you’ve gone to where this painful energy is and mined so much beauty and invention out of it. Natalie Goldberg said during our workshops, go to where the pain is, go to that energy. You’ve found a lot there.

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