Dogpatch writer Laurel Leigh’s essay explores how as a child she experienced the scars of her mother’s mastectomy and how those issues of image and identity carried into her adult life. Here’s an excerpt of “Scars” and our comments about this deeply honest piece of writing.
The wound in my chest was open and wide, and I could see the layers of my skin disappearing into the circular black hole. As a kid growing up in the country and later an acrobat, I’d had plenty of scrapes and bruises, but I’d never had a cut that deep. I was engrossed by how deep the hole was—about an inch.
The doc came back to the table and explained that the wound leakage had just been fluid, but it likely would re-occur if he used liquid anesthesia. If I was tough enough to look at it and not get grossed out, then, asked the doc, was I tough enough to let him stitch me up without anesthesia? The incision would heal more rapidly, if so, he told me. I said okay.
In your essay you look back on your childhood and examine your feelings, both then and now, about your mother’s mastectomy scars and what they meant to your own physical and emotional development growing up. Over the course of this essay you, as the narrator, come to understand that there are many types of scars an individual can incur over the course of a life — physical scars, of course, but also mental and emotional ones as well.
In many ways this piece is about self-acceptance versus others accepting us, but beneath this it is really a rumination on intimacy and mortality. The narrator is given three privileged glimpses in the course of this work: at her mother’s mastectomy scars; at the hole in her own breast after surgery to remove a tumor; and, finally, a clear, unimpeded view of the sky as seen through a hole in the ceiling after the constant rain of western Washington state eats through the roof of her house. All three of these privileged glimpses lay bare a sense of intimacy with the world, as well as a marked vulnerability to that same outside world.
The scars that life leaves on all of us can lead us to want to hide them from others. It is only natural for people to want to hide or camouflage their scars, just as we all want to hide or camouflage the uglier parts of life. But the narrator, over the course of this piece, learns to embrace her scars, to see their beauty instead.
I like the symmetry, or poetic echoes, you achieve with the various ‘holes’ we glimpse in the essay — how the deep, scarred depression left behind after Mom’s mastectomy mirrors and reflects the hole in the narrator’s own breast, which itself mirrors and reflects the hole in the narrator’s ceiling. As she considers her own feelings about her mother’s mastectomy scars, the narrator reflects on the scars two previous surgeries have left on her own breasts. She examines the varied reactions of her then-husband or the lovers in her life, and how these men may have been accepting or repelled by what they saw, just as the narrator herself was both accepting and (maybe a little) repelled by what the cancer had done to her mother’s body as it ate through her flesh. Our parents always tell us it doesn’t matter what other people think, but of course it does matter. We cannot help but be affected by how others view us.
As the narrator learns to embrace her own scars, she reaches a point where she is tempted to rip the plastic tarp encasing her roof to get a clearer, unobstructed view of the pretty blue sky. The way she finally learns to achieve this level of self-acceptance and increased openness with the world is through the healing gaze/touch of her kindly doctor. It is only through non-judgment and acknowledgement of another’s (and our own) scars that true healing is achieved.
Finally, the piece, while beautifully realized, has in my opinion a too-informal tone. For a piece about mortality and death, I’m not sure this works. I think it would work fine in a conversational tone, one that draws the reader into the narrator’s own circle of trust; but the informal tone, as it now stands, feels to me like it sometimes lurches past the conversational into the jokey.
That being said, as the work stands now one can also see just how hard it is to examine without personal bias, or without sparing one’s own feelings, the toll that life’s vicissitudes and difficulties can take on both our bodies and on our psyches. And yet in its current form it is also a testament to the difficulty, as well as the courage it takes, to write a clear-eyed, unflinching piece like this.
Laurel, dahlink, First I gotta say that this piece struck close to home. I think women, more so than men, wonder how our bodies will be received, both by men, our friends and family, and the general public. And when our bodies are scarred, that makes things even more complicated. So I loved your honest, straightforward, and often times lyrical treatment of this subject.
I saw this essay as a first draft, so I was interested in finding a throughline and cutting away pieces (see what I did there?) that wandered away from that throughline. To me, your phrase “acceptance must include acknowledgement” toward the end of the essay, feels like the heart or the throughline. And then that moment when you look up through the hole in your roof and really see the sky. Yes!!!
So, I created a story map to help me navigate this draft:
You start with mother and the nursing scar. Afterward we get a story about the goat milk, not the kind of family to share personal stuff, image of mother, a history of mastectomies and other medical info, an aside about your biological mom, no support for women in her era, the one time mother talked about her scar and your dad, your own lump and treatment, Rambo, 2nd lump, awkward about these scars but proud of others, plastic surgery plan, marriages, decision to do for self, roof repair, doctor exam/healing touch, acceptance must include knowledge, back to house and roof, tied to scars and what you want to look at and how you want to be seen.
So I’m thinking that there’s a lot here in this essay that you will be working to shape. I don’t think you need the part about the goat milk. Or the “not the kind of family” paragraphs, because we see this in other unspoken ways. I’m also thinking that you may not need the history of mastectomies/medical advances, the paragraphs about your biological mom, or the paragraph about your mom not seeking treatment for another lump in her 30s. While those are interesting aspects, I’m wondering if the essay will miss those pieces if you leave them out. It’s worth playing around to see what you think.
I like the parallel of how your dad “healed” your mom by accepting her scar, BUT do you know or do you hope that he actually touched them? Maybe your exes never touched your scars because they didn’t want to make you more self-conscious, or maybe they didn’t touch them in the way we often treat people in our society who have disabilities, by looking away or not acknowledging AND accepting. I have a friend whose daughter was extremely disabled. It made her mad the way people wouldn’t look at her daughter. Others are made uncomfortable by looking, so they don’t look or interact. In a way, this made her daughter a nonperson. Someone that people pretended not to notice. Although I digress, I think this is part of what you’re talking about. By really being SEEN/TOUCHED, we know we are accepted, but we need to do this for ourselves. Or a healer, like you mentioned, helps us do this for ourselves. As children, we’re taught not to look with interest, to stare, to ask questions, when maybe that’s exactly what needs to happen to develop the capacity for acceptance. Mr. Rogers (he’s also on my mind) knew this when he invited kids with disabilities onto his show.
In any case, I really enjoyed this essay, and think you’ve got some meaty bones to give this stew some body. Can you tell I haven’t dinner yet?