The Hysterectomy Waltz
by Merrill Joan Gerber
Dzanc Books; 194 p.
At a recent panel discussion on women in criticism, many of the participants expressed a perceived bias against anger in the writing of women. Some explained, that as women, they felt they couldn’t let loose on a topic, though a man could, for fear of being perceived as a shrew. As a male writer, it feels inappropriate for me to opine on this issue, but I can say, after reading the small masterpiece The Hysterectomy Waltz by Merrill Joan Gerber, I can confidently say, we need more anger from women.
Gerber, a professor at Caltech who’s been writing literature for decades now, deserves considerably more attention than she receives. Her newest novel, a deceptively quick and simple read, portrays an middle aged woman getting a hysterectomy in the 60s, a time when misogyny was rampant and doctors smoked in their patient’s face. Written in short bursts of chapters that push the book along, the story is made up of the thoughts and reactions of the narrator to her hysterectomy. Broken down into three main parts – diagnosis, surgery, and recovery, the narrator takes us through the process with a heavy satirical bent.
The opening paragraph, one for the ages, is a straight punch to the gut of the reader full of brilliant barbs, and subtle satire, all while capturing the mood of an age in hilarious fashion:
Three babies were born to me in five years. It seemed, when I was young, the only worthwhile thing to do, making those sturdy, well-designed pieces of merchandise, quality merchandise, not an open seam, not a shoddy bolt of material evident in the bunch. Each one exactly six pounds, stamped out by the same machine. A neat, well-executed birth every time. I could tell the doctors appreciated me: I was thin, young, my skin was tight and smooth and my body hair grew exactly where it was supposed to, none heavy on my thighs, none between my breasts, none around my navel.
While in the hospital, after she receives her diagnosis, the narrator watches a video with the ludicrous title “Waltzing Through Your Hysterectomy,” which begins by explaining, “Just as your marriage began in romance and wonder, so it may continue as a blessing from heaven after your hysterectomy,” which nicely sums up the pandering and often disgusting way women patients were and are treated by the male medical establishment.
Yet, complementing the satirical anger is an insightful exploration of what it means to be a woman after a hysterectomy, which ultimately doubles as exploration of what it means to be a woman.
I awoke a sterile woman. My husband leaned over me, giving me a kiss of such sweetness that I could not bear for him to know I would forevermore be without electricity….It was all over for me. I would never feel life again in my womb. I would never hold an infant to my breast again…My body, without menses, seemed like a country without weather…Ruined! A husk, a shuck, a shell of a woman. A clock without works, Empty, sterile, sexless…The truth was upon me. I wasn’t dead, but I wasn’t what I was. I was still alive, still a person, still a wife and mother, but I wasn’t all I had been and I’d never be whole again.
Written many years ago, this book is only being published now. This curious situation affords an interesting opportunity to see development (or lack thereof) on feminist issues. To an extent, feminism is more entrenched, but because of that, like all entrenched movements, much of feminism tends to feel more sterilized in its manifestations. This and other examples of righteous anger, as the women of the panel pointed out, tend to get relegated to the side, and that’s a real shame. Anger is a commodity not readily used these days. We tend to see anger as judgmental or biased, even juvenile, or we feel the need to contextualize and thereby deflate anger, but we’ve lost something in this process.
We’ve forgotten the power of anger to inspire, even to clarify. True, sometimes diplomacy deserves a higher place than seething rage, but sometimes, diplomacy hides a timidity. By no means is Gerber timid. She spares no one: the men in her life who do not understand her pain, her doctors who treat her like an object, and even the other women in a hospital who do not seem to be outraged at the zealousness of male doctors to recommend a hysterectomy. She expresses a sort of primal rage at the misogyny written into our culture’s blueprint, a code that makes conflicting and paradoxical claims on women and their bodies, without their input, of course.
Moreover, that so much of the novel can still feel relevant today should be a sign of the lack of progress on certain issues, and should engender sadness. That much of how she describes the process of a hysterectomy in the 60s echoes loudly with much of the discussion today makes this novel urgent.