“Is life too short to be taking shit, or is life too short to mind it?” Violet Weingarten wonders after being told by an acquaintance–erroneously and spitefully–that her husband was having an affair while she is undergoing chemotherapy.
A few years later, Anne Lamott, watching as her father, writer Kenneth Lamott, was dying of cancer, went looking for books to help her understand what was happening. As she later wrote, “I found myself desperate for books that talked about cancer in a way that would both illuminate the experience and make me laugh.” The only one she found was Weingarten’s Intimations of Mortality. She was so struck by Weingarten’s candor and caustic humor that she used the question above as the epigraph to her book, in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994).
While many more books about the experience of being treated for cancer have been written since 1978, Intimations of Mortality remains worth rediscovering for the pleasures (and pains) of Violet Weingarten’s unique voice and perspective. Growing up in New York City, she spent over fifteen working as a reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle, where she met her husband, Victor. The two would later be named as members of the Communist Party by reporter Winston Burdett in testimony before a Senate committee. She quit the paper in the early 1950s, choosing to focus on raising their two daughters. As the nest emptied in the early 1960s, she went back to work–but this time as a novelist. Her first novel, Mrs. Beneker (1967) won a respectable amount of critical and popular acclaim, and she was working on her fourth book, Half a Marriage, when she was first diagnosed with cancer.
Her first reaction was surprise, followed quickly–and unexpectedly–by euphoria: “The shoe I had been listening for–unconsciously–all my life had dropped. The fear that makes me human, my knowledge of my own mortality, the fear I had hidden so resolutely and displayed so obviously (none of use see his own ostrich rump sticking up there in the air) was suddenly allowed to surface, and I felt an enormous sense of relief.” Leave it to Weingarten to put in such commonplace words the profound message of Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, The Denial of Death (1974).
After further tests and some surgery, Weingarten was given a clean bill of health. But from the very beginning, her instincts told her that any reprieve would be temporary, and by February 1975, she was preparing herself for her first round of chemotherapy. She set herself the task of keeping a journal of the experience, and quickly filled a dozen pages with an account of her thoughts on the prospect. “I have indeed become the long-winded lady,” she concludes: “It’s the switch from third to first person. I got drunk on it.”
Fortunately for the reader, writing remained something of a tonic over the next thirteen months. Her chemotherapy took its toll on her stamina, added enough pounds to leave her constantly anxious over her looks and the fit of her clothes, tested her patience, and brought on its share of secondary illnesses, but appears not to have been severely debilitating until the very end. And Weingarten is very selective in what she shares about her cancer directly. This is not a journal about cancer but about the thoughts and feelings of a woman being treated for it.
At times, it makes for difficult reading. Not because of the details of her treatment or her descriptions of any of its side effects.” What makes this painful to read at points is the extent to which Weingarten was willing to share her thoughts, even if they were often maddening in their relentlessness: “What succeeded that phase was an idée fixe–an unending undercurrent–‘I think I am well, I am sure I am well,’ and the thought of my not being well never leaves my mind.” And when the anxieties of cancer combined with the forebodings of an author with a new book about to be published, her thoughts machine-gun onto the page:
… this time it’s a little different. Partly because I really don’t know what I am going to write next (but I never did). Partly because it is so important for me to have something going on now (I think that was what saved me when I got out of the hospital in January–I had work to pick up right away). But most of all because of all the unknowns. Will I see it published? (Next spring.) How will I feel then? (Will I be another Cornelius Ryan [who died of prostate cancer just after his A Bridge Too Far was published in 1974]?) Will they push it (in part because)? How will I feel about that? Diffident if they do, angry if they don’t. Also, a whole lot of me went into it. I can’t retreat any more–write what Gottlieb calls “cutesy”–I can only write from my gut now. But what I have to write about now is, in a way, unwritable. Except here.
“This is a special journal,” Weingarten wrote about two months after starting it. “I shan’t end it, life will.” And life did, in April 1976. “Wouldn’t it be nice if it turned out to be a virus?” read the last line in her journal. She entered Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, where she died on July 17th. Her husband and her daughters, Jan and Kathy, struggled over the decision to publish the journal. “To allow the death of our wife and mother, for us a very private event, to become public was disturbing.” But they decided that she had written it with the intent that it be read, and worked with Robert Gottlieb of Knopf to have it published: “Because she was a good writer, her journal should make her own experience significant to a great many people.” I can only hope that this article helps a few more people share in Violet Weingarten’s remarkable last experience.