Book Review | The Camera My Mother Gave Me by Susanna Kaysen

the-camera-my-mother-gave-me-review-paiges-pagesTITLE: The Camera My Mother Gave Me
: Susanna Kaysen
: Knopf
: October 2, 2001
: Nonfiction, Memoir
: 149

In this soul-bearing memoir by the author of Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen chronicles her relationship with her vagina.  When this under-appreciated part of her anatomy starts to hurt, destroying her sex life, her vagina suddenly becomes the centre of her universe.  Susanna is forced to analyse her new relationships with emotional abuse and chronic pain, and how all this impacts her identity as a woman… in a nutshell, everything you’re not supposed to talk about in public.

Susanna’s quest to cure her mystery pain reveals how different medical professionals will view the same problem through different lenses – one says the pain is all in her mind, another says experimental surgery will cure it, and yet another says alternative approaches such as baking soda baths and biofeedback are the only hope.  When none of the experts can solve the puzzle, Susanna’s countless contradictory diagnoses leave her feeling beyond help.

This is horrible, I told him.  This is the most horrible thing because it involves someone else too.  Yes, said Doctor Matthew.  It comforted me that he didn’t tell me it wasn’t the most horrible thing.  Whatever is happening to you is always the most horrible thing – page 21


Chronic Pain & Emotional Abuse

I was immersed in Susanna’s internal struggle to come to terms with her new reality revolving around chronic pain – and how not being able to use her vagina impacts her self-view and relationships.  It forced me to question how my own self-view would change if I experienced chronic pain anywhere in my body.  Since this memoir is so intimate and empathetic, it promotes personal growth through self-reflection.  While it may not be a story you feel comfortable sharing with friends and family, the internal dialogue it encourages is still powerful.

While parts of this book are laugh-out-loud hilarious, I found Susanna’s experiences intensely confronting.  The words and actions of her emotionally abusive boyfriend were triggering for me.  Their relationship demonstrates the abuser’s power to make the victim blame themselves and doubt their perception of reality.  While these sections are horrible to read, Susanna’s commitment to the nitty-gritty parts of her journey unpacks the abusive cycle and makes the victim’s point of view easier to understand.  It also shows how chronic pain can impact every level of a person’s life.

The fact of the pain was the burden.  It was like an unwieldy piece of luggage that I had to drag around.  When I went out to dinner, or took a walk, or got into bed, I had to slog the luggage along with me.  The pain itself was not that bad.  What was bad was the idea that I was stuck with it.  There was no checking it, or storing it in the overhead bin, no unpacking it and putting it in the closet, and that was what sapped my energy – page 122

For me, the title The Camera My Mother Gave Me is spot-on.  This title perfectly captures the essence of this memoir – from a young age, we are conditioned to view female bodies and female sexuality through a filter that doesn’t account for the full spectrum of experience.  Susanna’s journey challenges common misbeliefs about female identity.  She owns her sexuality and refuses to let her body serve anyone else’s agenda.  Besides her own witty voice, her memoir features a memorable cast of real people with real opinions.

Is it okay? I asked.  Is it okay that I want to stop trying to fix it?  It’s completely okay, he said.  I feel like I’m walking out on life, I said.  Part of it.  For the moment, he said.  But not all of it.  As  you said, there’s more to you than a sick vagina – page 106

The Camera My Mother Gave Me confronts countless taboos in its discussion of relationship abuse, chronic pain, and women’s bodies.  For such a short book, it took me on a powerful journey and changed my perspectives profoundly. 


4 thoughts on “Book Review | The Camera My Mother Gave Me by Susanna Kaysen

  1. cw @ readthinkponder says:

    Wow… this sounds like such a powerful book. I don’t think I’ve read (many) books about chronic pain, and I’ve been wanting to learn more about it. Thank you for writing this review – this sounds like a hard-hitting read, but a necessary one all the same. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Paige @ Paige's Pages says:

      I tried to recommend this book to you on Goodreads but for some reason couldn’t figure it out 😦 While I was reading it, I was thinking of you. Simply because this is such a raw, taboo-breaking Own Voices women’s narrative and I know how much you value these sorts of stories. It was a 5 star book from the first page! I had to buy it because I couldn’t get it through the library, and I honestly feel like it would be an investment to get all of Susanna Kaysen’s books. The two I’ve read so far have both been incredibly insightful and attitude-adjusting. Love it!


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