A Psychoanalytic Review of Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals

Abstract: Read through a psychoanalytic lens, The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the Self in conflict with societal pressures to be docile and conform. Lorde manages to reconcile her past self with her new reality by rejecting the guise provided by a False Self in order to embrace the reality of her one-breasted existence. In her dogged determination to live in her truth, Lorde discovers the core essence of her personhood. As Lorde takes the road less traveled, she assembles a loving community of women around her. Her metamorphosis through mastectomy transforms her relationship to her daughter, her friends, her body, and her Self.


In The Cancer Journals (1980), Audre Lorde discusses her self-transformation as she battles cancer and undergoes a mastectomy. Although Lorde’s decision not to wear a prosthetic breast creates tension in the breast cancer survivor community,  she forms new bonds of solidarity by politicizing her experience as a Black lesbian feminist. A rite of passage into her next vocational stage, the surgery radicalizes Lorde and emancipates her writer’s voice. Through her recovery,  Lorde is reborn as a warrior poet inspiring other women to uncensor themselves and live in their truths. As she embraces her new body, Lorde disentangles her attachment to her breasts as representations of her erotic self which then frees her to experience love, friendship, and her calling anew.

Lorde lays herself bare in her journal entries, articulating her transformation as she traverses the psychological terrain of recovery. Before her surgery she experiences her existential ambivalence stating, “I’m not feeling very hopeful these days, about selfhood or anything else” (2). As Lorde writes of her pain, she questions what she is mourning, “For my lost breast? For the lost me? And which me was that anyway? For the death I don’t know how to postpone? Or know how to meet elegantly? I am so tired of all this. I want to be the person I used to be, the real me” (17). As Lorde has already been significantly altered by the experience of having cancer, she grapples with losing her breast and the possibility of losing herself entirely. In her desire to hold onto what she conceives of as her authentic self, Lorde resists the development of a False Self that could emerge to help her cope with the trauma of the mastectomy. She knows all attempts by a False Self to help her navigate her social world would result in feeling unreal or a sense of futility which she processes in her sleep. Preparing herself for surgery, Lorde delves into self-examination in the unconscious realm of dreams. 

Dreams, in the Freudian sense, play an important role in Lorde’s ability to interrogate the self and cope with inner conflict. Through the analysis of these dreams she acknowledges disparate voices, divisions, and contradictions within herself. In the midst of the nightmares that engage the prospect of a mastectomy, “a thin high voice” pierces through Lorde’s pain, terror, and disbelief “screaming that none of this [is] true” (23). Representing the aspect of herself in denial, the egoic voice advises that she become “totally inert” as a means to make her situation disappear (ibid). In another dream script, a big bird, resembling the superego, observes Lorde’s actions from above, “providing a running commentary, complete with suggestions of factors forgotten, new possibilities of movement, and ribald remarks” (ibid). In total, the insistent voices form an internal chorus all with something “slightly different to say” and “none of which would let [Lorde] rest” (ibid). Perhaps what makes the collective tirade so unbearable is the unwelcome communication from Lorde’s unconscious which had been forgotten or repressed.

Two weeks after surgery, Lorde recalls how her nights are saturated with dreams. She describes this as “an important interim period” to integrate her dreams with her waking life. For instance, the night before her surgery, Lorde dreams of a late lover, Eudora, who holds her hands in Lorde’s cold hospital room. The next day when Lorde awakes she writes, “Eudora, what did I give you in those Mexican days so long ago? Did you know how I loved you? You never talked of your dying, only of your work” (28). The dream causes Lorde, who now faces her own mortality, to concentrate more urgently on her life’s work.

Lorde frames the experience of her mastectomy as a transformational rite of passage. Initially, Lorde struggles through various stages of grief and acceptance. She asks herself, “How do I live with myself one-breasted? What posture do I take, literally, with my physical self?” (39) As she reorients herself to her new physical reality, Lorde first comes to grips with the extent of her physical suffering. Lorde describes the pain of her phantom breast as being crushed in a vice. Prepared to manage emotional and psychological hurt, Lorde is angered that no one warns her about the physical pain she would have to endure.  Aware of the personal and social danger of resisting this excruciating sensation, Lorde recognizes that the pain must flow through her. She digs deep within her psyche to manage her pain responsibly so as not to run the risk of imploding and “splatter[ing] [her] pieces against every wall and person that [she] touch[es]” (4). As Lorde adjusts to “a new body, a new time span, a possible early death,” she makes peace with the different way in which she must move through the world.

Through mastectomy, Lorde also relives the pain of separation from her mother’s breast as an infant. She describes the agony of losing her right breast as “at least as sharp as the pain of separating from [her] mother” (18). Even so, Lorde resolves that since she survived parting with her mother’s breast, she can live without her own as well. In mothering herself through her battle with cancer, Lorde achieves self-autonomy in relinquishing her breast just as she became independent when she weaned from her mother’s milk. Before her surgery, Lorde questions how being one-breasted would impact her desirability to other women and ability to make love. She wonders how she could bear to never feel her breast which represented such an area of feeling and sexual pleasure.

In some respects, Lorde’s journey parallels coming of age processes of maturation. As Lorde reparents herself through her mastectomy, she subjects herself to a form of death, severing a cancerous part of her anatomy from which she is able to individuate. As she heals, Lorde abandons the belief that her right breast was the source of her erotic sense of self. When she discovers she can masturbate again, her ability to “mak[e] love to [her]self for hours at a time” is “a welcome relief to the long coldness” (17). With a fresh sense of sensuality, Lorde realizes that the well of feeling lives deep within, emanating from inside herself and she can attach it to any body part or person she wants.

In losing a breast, Lorde also acquires a new lens on motherhood as she aids her daughter, Beth, in detaching from Lorde’s breast before the surgery. When she tells Beth about her decision to have a mastectomy, Beth conveys how she is sentimentally attached to her mother’s breasts, indicating the she too would share in Lorde’s loss. Cognizant of the importance of community as she goes through the ritual of healing, Lorde leans on support from friends to help comfort Beth. Her friend, Adrienne Rich, in particular helps reassure Beth of how difficult the decision is for Lorde and explains how Lorde would have a different experience if she was Beth’s age. This intervention supports Beth in her own coming of age. Liberating herself from her attachment to Lorde’s  breast, Beth is able to relate to Lorde not simply as her mother, but as a woman.

Through the ritual of healing, Lorde is reborn a warrior among the countless women who have fought breast cancer. Thinking about all the women who did not survive, Lorde says, “survival is only part of the task. The other part is teaching.” As Lorde heals, she integrates lived experience into an embodied pedagogy. Three weeks after surgery, Lorde is compelled to go to Houston to give a reading out of a desire to “be of use,” even only symbolically, despite feeling “weak and inadequate” (42). Soon after, Lorde finishes her novel which she affirms has been a lifeline. Thus, “breast cancer with its mortal awareness and the amputation which it entails” proves to be a “transformational object” (Bollas 1987), causing her to declare “I am who the world and I have never seen before” (Lorde, 40). Providing a gateway “into the tapping and expansion of [her] own power and knowing,”  Lorde infuses her embodied knowledge into her life’s work (45).

In addition to her writing, Lorde’s single most important statement post-mastectomy is in refusing to wear a prothesis as a means of transitioning into a semblance of a normalcy. Lorde questions the utility of prosthetic breasts, which unlike the function of prosthetic limbs, are merely cosmetic. When Lorde tries on a prosthesis given to her by a white woman from Reach for Recovery, Lorde hopes it will make her feel “entirely different. It didn’t” (36). In addition to being the wrong skin color, Lorde describes the lambswool bra insert as “perched on my chest askew, awkwardly inert and lifeless, and hav[ing] nothing to do with any me I could possible conceive of” (36). When Lorde goes back to the hospital without wearing a prothesis, the nurse tells her she is “bad morale for the office” (44). While Lorde’s decision creates discord in the breast cancer survivor community, it frees her to form a radical one of her own.

Rejecting a False Self that would wear a prothesis to fit in socially and be desirable to the male gaze, Lorde searches for a community that resonates with her authentic self. Her family and friends are a crucial support system that help Lorde navigate her transition so much so that she proclaims “the love of women healed me” (31). Her partner, Frances, is a confidant with whom Lorde finds comfort, shares tears, and communes in “rich love” (21). Even when Lorde feels isolated in her experience, she describes Frances’ loyal presence as “glowing with steady warm light close by to the island within which [Lorde has] to struggle alone” (21). Beyond her inner circle, Lorde also details a diverse community of “Black and white, old and young, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual” women who visit her, send letters, bring gifts, and provide recovery resources (13). This community provides a refreshing contrast to the Reach for Recovery women who are mostly concerned with being able to pass as double-breasted and be considered attractive to old boyfriends. Desiring Black feminists  “who share at least some of [her] major concerns, beliefs, visions, [and her] language” (35), Lorde finds other Black and lesbian cancer survivors through her network of friends. Among these survivors, Lorde trades “dykeinsight” – notes on nurses, exercises, topical treatments for scars, and recovery stories (42). As Lorde stands in her True Self, she lets go of attachment to her old self, attracts like-minded individuals, and expands her community of friendships.

In forgoing the prothesis, Lorde bypasses cosmetic issues to grasp the political meaning of mastectomies. Lorde believes that “socially sanctioned prosthesis is merely another way of keeping women with breast cancer silent and separate from each other” (1). As Lorde makes her one-breasted reality visible, she externalizes the cause of her cancer to a sick capitalist society that exposes people to carcinogens in order to make profits. She describes her body as a barometer reflecting the toxicity of environmental conditions including radiation, animal fat, McDonald’s hamburgers, and Red Dye No. 2” (53). Committed to her truth, Lorde demands that the world adjusts to her reality. She appeals to the fashion industry to cater to the design needs of one-breasted women. Instead of hiding her chest, Lorde decides to take pride in her uneven body by adorning it with landscape jewelry and asymmetrical patterns. By reaching for recovery on her own terms, Lorde claims she becomes a “more whole person” (48).

While acknowledging the societal pressures to blame the victim, not once does Lorde make herself culpable for her cancer. Instead, she questions the ontogenetic nature of the suffering self. She asks, “Is this pain and despair that surround me a result of cancer, or has it just been released by cancer?” (3). Lorde realizes she has been training for this role her whole life, surviving  as a “Fat Black Female” in the Unites State (32). Hence, Lorde identifies herself as  “an anachronism, a sport, like the bee that was never meant to fly” because, according to science, she, a Black lesbian woman was never supposed to exist (5). Just as bees fly, Lorde lives despite “carry[ing] death around in [her] body like a condemnation” (ibid). As she proceeds along her cancer journey, Lorde finds a way to  “integrate death into living” by facing her mortality without succumbing to it (5). 

Self-assured with one breast, Lorde becomes a model for all women who have “shared a war against the tyrannies of silence” (13). Baffled by her life of fear prior to her surgery, Lorde’s self-examination causes her to regret all the moments she remained silent when she wanted to speak. Now viscerally aware that Death is the final silence, Lorde empowers herself by putting fear into perspective. Every time she is terrified of cancer reoccurring, Lorde channels her energy “in service of her vision” and “it becomes less important whether or not [she is] unafraid” (8). Years after her death, Lorde interrogates the readers asking us, “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say?” She speculates that she is “the face of one of [our] fears” because she is herself – a Black lesbian woman warrior poet doing her work who has come to ask us, “Are you doing yours?” (14)


Image Description: Black-and-white portrait of Audre Lorde resting her head on her hands as she looks down and smiles.

3 thoughts on “A Psychoanalytic Review of Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals

  1. (Sorry if this is a duplicate comment)

    ———–

    Another outstanding post, Nadia!

    Audre Lorde was a Professor of Feminist Studies at my alma mater University of California, Santa Cruz while I was a student there. I never took her classes, but after reading your post, I wish I had been one of her students. I wish I had been in the same room to listen to such an extraordinary, beyond-brave woman who lived an authentic life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, that’s incredible. Well at least we all get to be her students now! I went the extra mile for an undergrad research project and traveled to Spellman College in ATL where her archive is. This week in my documentary class we watched A Litany For Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde and The Cancer Journals Revisited so of course I chose this week to present and lead class discussion 🙂 They are both great documentaries on her work and impact which I highly recommend. She left us with so much the possibilities for new growth and learning are endless!

      Liked by 1 person

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