Philadelphia City Paper

Shooting Pains: “The Camera My Mother Gave Me”

Jessica DuLong profile photo

Jessica DuLong

Published October 1, 2021

Susanna Kaysen on how a medical condition redefined her sexuality.

sub3 2

There are lots of things that might worry you on the day the book about your sore pussy comes out in stores. Susanna Kaysen is worried about dating. “First I was famous for being a crazy girl, and now I can be famous for being a girl with a sore thing. This isn’t going to get me any dates either,” says Karen, chasing a bite of croissant with a swig of hot water in a Manhattan restaurant. Kaysen makes no pretense of high glam or hipster cool. Instead, she’s got a comfortable, youthful look that matches her upbeat energy.

Even before Winona Ryder adapted it for the silver screen, Kaysen had received wide recognition for her 1993 Girl, Interrupted, about her twenty months in a mental institution. Her newest book, The Camera My Mother Gave Me (Knopf), chronicles Kaysen’s struggle with mysterious vaginal pain. Except for the boyfriend who is a central character in Camera, Kaysen hasn’t had a date in 12 years, she says. “Nobody’s interested in me. They weren’t interested in me when my vagina still worked.”

Perhaps the first thing to mention about the book is that it’s funnier than you might think. The plot line is simple: Something has gone wrong with Kaysen’s vagina, and it hurts – a lot. So to get answers and, she hopes, relief, Kaysen visits a slew of health practitioners, from the Italian gynecologist with the large soft hands to the alternative health nurse, to the vulvologist whose face looks like a vulva.

A story rooted in pain might not particularly seem like a comic opportunity, but often it works. Kaysen visits a biofeedback specialist who thinks that her vaginal pain has something to do with her pelvic wall muscles and her bladder, so she decides to re-train Kaysen’s bladder with a strict pee regimen. Kaysen names her the Urinazi, and after a week of wantonly rebellious unscheduled peeing, decides enough is enough. She writes, “I’d worked up a speech that made use of sentences like, I’m not comfortable with the bladder retraining effort, and, I feel I need to focus on the pelvic-floor exercises – sentences I hoped would trigger the proper response in her New Age Urinazi mind.”

The book came into being when Kaysen dug up the notes she’d taken to keep track of her doctor visits. A letter she’d written to her internist contained a narrative about all the things she tried in an eight month period, including vinegar rinses, saltwater soaks, a pH jelly, estrogen cream, tea baths, stinging Novocain, pelvic-floor exercises and more. “This is just so crazy that it could be a book,” Kaysen thought. “It’s got this kind of ‘Three Stooges Get Sick’ quality to it.”

The challenge posed by Camera‘s humor is that it gets in the way of conveying Kaysen’s miserableness. She enlists a hoard of adjectives and adverbs to make us understand the pain, but her descriptions seem so aloof, it’s still hard to grasp. The descriptions begin on the first page: “Some days my vagina felt as if somebody had put a cheese grater in it and scraped. Some days it felt like someone had poured ammonia inside it. Some days it felt like a little dentist was drilling a little hole inside it.” We want to understand what this must feel like – after all, pain is the crux of the plot – but there’s none of the crotch-wrenching, cross-your-legs kind of description one might expect. It’s a cartoon version of pain. The best description comes during one of the many instances when Kaysen tries to explain the pain to her boyfriend: “It’s like a sore throat,” she writes. “So sore you don’t want to swallow, you know that kind of sore throat?” Got it. The body memory of how sore a sore throat can be, piggybacked with the vivid realization of just how throat-like the coochie is. Unfortunately for Kaysen, the boyfriend still didn’t get it.

The other main theme of the book is sex, though it is in some ways difficult to tease apart the sex from the pain. For Kaysen, the two have become inextricably bound. Here’s where a little history helps. Readers of Girl, Interrupted, will remember the reprints of intake forms dated 1967 from McLean Hospital, the exclusive psychiatric facility where Kaysen lived from the ages of 18 to 20. One of the “reasons for referral” listed is “promiscuity” The trouble with writing multiple memoirs is your readers get to know you, or at least they think they do. They begin to expect answers.

In Camera, Kaysen’s sore vagina gets sorer at the mention of sex, and intercourse feels like “being torn or sliced.” This begins cause problems between Kaysen and her boyfriend, the carpenter whom she fell for because of his smell and the way he neatly swept up the sawdust after he’d made her a new front door. “For two years we were happy with the activities we shared: thinking up home improvements for him to make and having sex. Now that I did not want have sex though, we got into trouble.”

Kaysen surprises herself by constantly fighting off his advances. But I like sex, she thinks. Then, during one night of painful intercourse, Kaysen has a realization: “I pulled away inside myself, so that the events on the bed were far from where ‘I’ was, and the pain was far away also. I had the thought, People who don’t like sex must feel this way. Then I realized that now I was somebody who doesn’t like sex.” The weight of this realization seems tremendous for Kaysen, but he doesn’t explain why. She says several times throughout Camera that she is someone who likes sex. Girl, Interrupted readers know there’s more to it, only we aren’t quite sure what. It’s only at the very end of Camera that we find out about the “aridity” of Kaysen’s desire: “I was the one who couldn’t be satisfied, whose idea of love was sexual conquest. I always wanted a new passion to replace the one that had fizzled out. And that was my wasteland from which I had no escape.”

Kaysen does find escape, however, through her vagina – the vagina that she realizes has died. Kaysen’s dead vagina, the loss of her sexuality, becomes an emblem of her own mortality. “Death had got a grip on my vagina,” she writes. “What an irony when sex is one of the main compensations for mortality. He wasn’t much of a lover, death.”

If there’s one question Kaysen doesn’t want to be asked, she says it’s: Are you fucking anybody yet? “I’m not, and I guess I might as well be frank about it. It’s the most embarrassing thing to admit, that you are sexually inactive. It’s so humiliating. It’s like you’re such a dog.” One of the reasons she wrote the book, she explains, was to explore what your sexuality means “when you don’t have one.” Tied into that are questions of death. “I think sex and death are contiguous anyhow. They sort of are in a battle. Sex is one of the great compensations for mortality. It puts death off in some way.”

Beyond conquest, part of what Kaysen grieved with the loss of her sexuality is youth. As she writes in Camera, “The older I got, the more I saw that everything I did was just a protest against death, a heaping up of weight on the life side of the balance so that maybe, somehow, death wouldn’t be heavy enough to take me.”