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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

by Emily Mitchell

In this issue:


Breast cancer was once the disease of silence. A Darker Ribbon, explores 100 years of changing relationships between women, their doctors and society. We've come a long way, but there is still much to be done. 

Walker Evans photographed the common man and woman with subtlety and elegance as can be seen in a retrospective of his work. 

Leslie Stahl's memoir Reporting Live chronicles her life in the fishbowl of news; Edith's Story is a true and moving remembrance of one young woman coming of age during the Holocaust. 


Whose Disease Is It Anyhow?

A Darker Ribbon by Ellen Leopold
(Beacon; 334 pages; $27.50; Amazon: $19.25)

     "You are being a very silly and stubborn woman. You ask too many questions. I could have performed the mastectomy while you were under, and you would not have to go through this trauma twice and everything would have been fine.'' The speaker is a surgeon, and he is chiding a woman for refusing to sign a consent form allowing an immediate radical mastectomy if a biopsy showed a malignancy. The patient was Rosamund Campion, an editor at Seventeen magazine, who wrote about her experience in McCall's. (She eventually found a doctor who performed a simple mastectomy.) 
     The year was 1971, and though a great deal has changed in the medical treatment of  breast cancer, there are still troubling economic, political, social and personal issues surrounding the disease. Subtitled Breast Cancer, Women and Their Doctors in the Twentieth Century,  this history of the intersections between the medical profession and the illness that for so long  dare not speak its name. The author, Ellen Leopold, has written about her subject for ten years, and with A Darker Ribbon makes a powerful  argument for challenging the medical industries--and women--to commit themselves to eradicating the disease. 
      Leopold traces the responses to the illness from the late 19th century to our present day, examining the role of science and the cultural views of the female breast. A hundred years ago, a woman's suffering and death from breast cancer was a family matter. The pain was concealed within the home or, ultimately, within the bedroom of the dying woman. Very few of the women who had breast cancer wrote about it, and health manuals barely mentioned the disease. There was a general belief that the "female malady'' was linked to a woman's nerves, and Leopold points out that this early victim-blaming may be seen to have survived and become even more prominent. Implicit in the self-help movement is a sense of guilt when faced with failure. 
     Early on, breast cancer became the province of the surgeon. The most famous practitioner was William Stewart Halsted of Johns Hopkins Medical School. An innovative and careful surgeon, he perfected the radical mastectomy that for 75 years remained the "gold standard'' of treatment. The patient, the woman, put her breast, her body, her life into the glove-sheathed hands of the surgeon. To illustrate the relationship between the M.D. and his female patient, Leopold includes excerpts from letters Rachel Carson exchanged with her doctors. A careful observer and indefatigable researcher, Carson was in a better position than most women to confer with physicians and collaborate in her own care during the three difficult years until her death in 1964. "Her very attentiveness to her disease,'' writes Leopold,'' her flattering chronicle of all its manifestations, were an implicit recognition of its awful power.'' 
     But still the individual experience was private, even though more American women than ever were dying from breast cancer. And here is the paradox. With the increased methods of early detection, a woman had to take on the sole responsibility for noticing a lump, a tumor or suspicious  change. Yet  once a tumor--malignant or benign-- was detected, she ceased to have any control over her body. In 1960, Carson had written to her doctor: "I have a great deal more peace of mind when I feel I know the facts, even though I might wish they were different.''  It wasn't until the '70s that women began to demand the facts about their illness. Sadly, as Leopold makes plain, even today they still do not always get them. 
        Public awareness grew as Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan were candid about their mastectomies, though Leopold notes that Reagan choose the "one-step'' procedure and was willing to go straight from biopsy to mastectomy rather than taking time to review test results. Breast cancer moved out of the closet as brave first-person accounts began showing up in women's magazines and on television. Admirable and emotionally moving as they are, for the most part they are personal and turned inward, holding the "world at bay, while exploring in minute detail the emotional reverberations of a life-threatening illness.'' The future looks gloomy, Leopold concludes, and may "be held hostage as much by political and economic interests as by the continuing slow pace of research.''  The book poses a troubling question: How should women, government and society take on responsibility for stopping this killer of women? It's something we should all be asking. 


The People, Yes

The photographer Walker Evans (1903-1975) celebrated the nobility in America's places and in the everyday faces of  its people. A gas station on a lonely road, the quiet main street of a small town, a tenant farmer's wife tight-lipped and worn by drudgery, a white-painted country church in the South, a farmer standing in the doorway of his cabin. Anyone with a Kodak could easily have taken  pictures of these subjects from the Depression era, and certainly many did. What sets Evans' work apart is the uncompromising clarity of the pictures, their classical composition and the humanity and dignity with which he imbued the hard-scrabble rural life during the Depression era. Most of the time Evans was working can be called the age of the common man, and he suited the times as well as they suited him.
    These iconic images are among the 175 works on view at a major retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum through May 13. As well, the museum has collected some of his earlier experimental photography, magazine photo essays from the '40s and '50s and the color Polaroid prints Evans made in the 1970s. A tireless collector, Evans had gathered a vast array of postcards and newspaper clippings, and some of these are on exhibit as well. Together with the 1930s pictures, they give a fully rounded view of this most democratic of photographers. 
     One of his greatest failures became probably his greatest success. With the writer James Agee, Evans went to Hale County, Alabama to study three farming families. The result was the 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Less than 200 copies of the original were sold, but today it is considered a masterpiece. The poignant photographs of the families, their meager belongings and shabby cabins do not pander, they honor.
      Everything and everybody was a potential subject for Evans. He saw clearly, observed dispassionately, and put everything on the record. Even today, one looks at the pictures without a cheapening nostalgia for a vanished past, but with a respect for the photographer's honesty. For Fortune magazine in 1955, Evans shot black-and-white closeups of tools. Pliers, a trowel, a wrench, a crate opener--these aren't normally the stuff of aesthetic admiration. Evans shows that they can be. Light and shadow play across the cool, smooth metal, and the curved shapes of handles, and strong angle of a blade become pure form and design.  The viewer can feel what it is like to hold each implement in the hand, to put it to the task. 
     In a brief commentary accompanying the pictures, Evans wrote that these basic, common tools stand for "elegance, candor, and purity.'' Much the same could be said for Evans. 

And Consider This


Reporting Live by Lesley Stahl
(Touchstone; 444 pages; $14; Amazon: $11.20)

Leslie Stahl was one of the first women promoted to high-profile assignments in network news, and has stayed at the top of her profession for 25 years. A bestseller when it first appeared, her memoir is newly in paperback and it's a dandy read. When it comes to getting the story, Stahl is tough as they come, and she's just as tough when it comes to writing about herself as a woman with a career, a husband and a daughter. She has a good ear for the amusing anecdote and a sharp eye for the pretentious, and a commitment to getting at the truth. What emerges is a journalist's devotion to craft. She worked hard toget to the top of her profession. Once there, she worked even harder to get better. You go, girl.

Edith's Story by Edith Velmans
(Soho; 239 pages; $25; Amazon: $17.50)

The Van Hessen family knew time was running out for Jews in The Netherlands. One son, Guus, had been sent to America, but parents, a son and daughter and the grandmother were caught in the Nazi trap. The daughter, Edith, was hidden away during the Occupation, but unlike Anne Frank, she survived. 
      A psychologist who lives in Massachusetts, Edith Velmans has written an affecting account of those terrible days. Part of it is from her diary, faithfully kept until she went into hiding and it was too dangerous. Protected by a Gentile family, Edith assumed a new secret identity, but there was always the chance and the fear of being discovered. Her only contact with her parents was by letter, written in code as if by friends. In one of his last letters, her father wrote, "Don't ever let hate, in whatever form, overpower your soul, because nothing good has ever come of it.'' At the end of the war, Edith and Guus, now an American soldier, are re-united, the only ones of the family who are alive. 

Editor's Note. recently featured a Sighting of Walker Evans photos; here are the links:

A new exhibit of Walker Evans (1903-1975) photos is at New York's Met Museum. It is for the Farm Security Admin (twelve in all at this site) photos that he may be best known as well as his work for the Agee book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men ©


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