As soon as I saw Cathy step out of her car in a short aqua dress and tall gold heels, I remembered that this was the premiere, not just a screening, of Decoding Annie Parker. I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, utterly fried after four non-stop days that included a twenty-four hour trip to San Francisco. But Cathy was really excited about this, and about introducing me to some of her buddies from FORCE, the support group for BRCA-1 and -2 ladies, which was presenting the movie about the search for the breast cancer gene.
(And the Band Played On for cancer, was how I thought of it—except when I’d seen that movie, AIDS and disease of any kind seemed incredibly romantic and distant to my immortal high school self.)
My stance on FORCE was: Awesome that it exists, but it’s not my thing. First, because it’s Cathy’s thing. I wasn’t very supportive of her struggle with her fucked-up but undetonated genes, because I was busy picking shrapnel out of my own exploded body. The least I could do—as I shoved her out of my sicky spotlight—was leave her a spotlight of her own.
Second, because the subtext I read in FORCE’s celebration of “previvors” was, It’s too late for you, person who already had cancer. You’re fucked. Your best hope is to take solace in the next generation.
I want to be one of those people who takes solace in the next generation, who says, If I can save just one woman from going through what I went through, it will all be worthwhile. I specifically don’t want to be like those right-wing assholes who hate welfare because they pulled themselves up their bootstraps and think everyone else should too. In general, I think the world needs less suffering, not more.
And yet, when the pre-movie ads from various cancer organizations and corporations rolled, an old, embattled feeling reared up in me. Touching music played behind black-and-white footage of women talking about cancer. Eventually their voices merged into a sort of word collage, employing the kind of Radio Lab editing that drives me crazy. “MRI.” “Chemo.” “Fear.” “Stage 4.”
Usually I felt grateful for developments in cancer treatment and not overly concerned with the corporate infrastructure that may have begotten them. But now the movie’s sponsors looked all creepy and Big Pharma to me.
You already have my body parts. I’m not giving you money too, I thought bitterly. As if my ovaries had been turned into gold and donated to Pfizer.
I walked out of the theater and cried in the bathroom for a while. Cathy texted me: Was this a bad idea?
I came back when the movie started. It opened with a shot of two little girls watching their chemo-sick mom shuffle around the house. The voiceover said something like, My older sister Joanie was always there for me.
“Joanie’s going to die, isn’t she?” I whispered to Cathy. It wasn’t the first time the role of Cancerous Older Sister had seemed similar to that of Black Best Friend. Just a device for the real person of the movie to learn from and emote about and avenge.
They did kill off the cancerous older sister, but because the movie took place before the days of genetic testing, the younger sister wasn’t spared by cancer either. Annie, played by Samantha Morton, got both breast and ovarian cancer over the course of the movie. Morton played her as funny and quirky, but not overly upbeat. Her Annie was terrified of dying long before any diagnosis, and obsessed about the origins of her disease to the point of neglecting all else. She moaned and groaned when chemo made her sick.
|Another stylish wig alternative.|
(Again, you can substitute AIDS Patient or Black Best Friend or Developmentally Disabled Person in most instances.)
I firmly believe that people who die are people too. That dying doesn’t make you more or less of a hero than living does. But it was surprisingly refreshing to see a cancer patient who lived. Who was also the Real Person character. Not to mention the refreshing-ness of an arc that mirrored real life in larger ways—ups followed by downs followed by ups followed by downs, etc.
Perhaps because of that, the movie was also very montage-y, the way biopics so often are, and the science parts of the movie were kind of contrived and confusing. Helen Hunt played Mary-Claire King, a determined researcher who spent a lot of her time dealing with male co-workers and funders who had lines like, “Silly lady doctor. Mark my words: No genetic component to breast cancer will ever be discovered, ever.”
I didn’t cry during the movie, but I did when the real Annie Parker took the stage afterward. In real life, she’d survived cancer a third time. She looked great in her tight red dress, hardly old enough to have first been diagnosed in the early seventies. She spoke like the unassuming Canadian girl she was, more casual than overly humble, and she said that the main things that had fueled her work were fear and rage.
I was so grateful to someone for saying that, not only were those emotions “understandable, considering,” but that they were useful.