June 26, 2005
Writing Our Own Stories

Somewhere between the diagnosis and the surgery, Jeremiah Healy decided to write an article about his prostate cancer. Healy is better known for writing mystery novels and short stories under his own name and under his pseudonym, Terry Devane. This time the story was his own, as he joined the ranks of writers who seek to connect with their readers by offering up their own personal experience.

"I figured I had two ways to deal with it--stay quiet or talk about it," Healy says. "For me, writing about the cancer was a way of spitting in its eye and coming through the process with a better understanding of a given disease that had targeted me specifically."

It helps that Healy feels at ease with topics others might shy away from, a skill he first learned as a trial attorney and law professor, and honed as a writer. His most recent book, A Stain Upon the Robe, deals with clergy sexual abuse. But now his topic was not only difficult but highly personal. If Healy had qualms about being self-revealing, though, he brushed them aside to accomplish what he wanted: to give a gift to other men and the people close to them. Noting that he benefitted from the openness of others about their own experiences, Healy says his article was "also a way to pay back, or to ‘pay it forward".

"I've been very pleased by the response. People have said, 'I'm glad some guy is finally willing to talk about this, including the questions about incontinence and sexual impotence'."

The article, which can be seen on his web site, www.jeremiahhealy.com, may not be Healy's last word on the subject.

"Who knows, maybe in the future I'll give the experience of Jeremiah Healy the human being to a character in a book." 

For a writer, using your own life in your work in an explicit way forces you to walk a line edged with potential missteps. When we write our own personal details into our work the result can be generous and meaningful, or narrow and self-indulgent. The fine edge is one I worried about with my own book, Afterwords, a collection of poems I wrote during my husband's illness and after his death. Rafael Campo is a physician and a poet who has given a lot of thought to the subject. Campo is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Landscape with Human Figure and a collection of essays, The Healing Art: A Doctor's Black Bag of Poetry.  

"This question," says Campo, "has been a central concern of mine, coming from the medical profession, where we go so far in the opposite direction to shield ourselves in the armor of white coats and machinery and professional objectivity. But I try to push myself as a writer in terms of openness, to make myself more visible. I think there can be damage in too much distance between caregiver and patient, and between writers and readers, too.

Campo shares my concern of trying to figure out how much of ourselves we dare write into our work. He feels the pivotal point lies in motive, in what is driving the writer. If a writer is motivated by self-aggrandizement, Campo says, or is not telling the truth, it violates the contract between writer and reader. On the other hand, he says, there is much to be gained when a writer shares his or her own experience.

"Both writer and reader can recognize themselves in each other's eyes. It allows the narrator to do the real work of narration, to show what we share as human beings."

What we're reading now: Jeremiah Healy is reading Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides, about the daring World War II raid to liberate II the survivors of the Bataan Death March in the Philippines. Rafael Campo is reading Richard Howard's Inner Voices, poems that accumulate to an argument that without art (and especially the art of the voice which is poetry) we are not human.

Ellen Steinbaum can be reached at citytype@globe.com.

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If you had asked me a decade ago to draw a parallel between my father (a retired Army officer from World War II) and Johnny Ramone (a member of the landmark punk-rock band that bore his stage name), I would have been hard-pressed. But today, the answer is simplicity itself: They both died from prostate cancer that spread to their bones. And, as an eye-witness to my dad's agonizing passing, I'd recommend against it.

From An Unsentimental Journey by Jeremiah Healy

On the Right to Marry
by Raphael Campo

Will you remember me the way I am
today? This long engagement---twenty years---
has taken something of a toll. I came
to bed last night, and thought that we were far

from being done with dreams. You turned to me,
and I was young, and still afraid; June's moon
peered in, parental with concern. My knee.
ached, punishment for worshipping the loam

in our small garden. Irises in bloom,
their wizened, bearded faces beautiful
old men's, dispensed their blessings and their blame.
You painted furniture, and said "I will,

of course I will." I planted savory,
not hardy through the winter months, beside
the mint you hate for its invasiveness.
A breeze intruded, always the bright bride

the whole world wants to marry. A life's work,
as yet only half done, ubiquitous---
I felt tired, and it would soon be dark,but none can refuse love, not even us.


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©2004 Ellen Steinbaum

My photo on the home page is by Peter Urban.
The cover of my book, Afterwords, was designed by Kate Misail.
The painting on the cover of the book, which is also pictured on this page, is by Eric Sealine.

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