A Feminist Professor's Closing Chapters

The professor and feminist critic uses literature to understand life—and death

Kristen Schmid Schurter for The Chronicle

In a powerfully personal new book, the literary scholar Susan Gubar turns to writing and art to understand her experience of ovarian cancer.
April 22, 2012

In the fall of 2008, Susan Gubar was enjoying the success that comes from a long and illustrious academic career. She was serving as a special adviser to the provost at Indiana University, supervising a dozen dissertation students, and teaching a graduate course on feminist literary criticism that evolved from the groundbreaking book she had written with a colleague 30 years earlier, The Madwoman in the Attic.

But on November 5, Ms. Gubar went to the hospital experiencing abdominal discomfort and received some shocking news. She had advanced ovarian cancer.

Three days later she underwent a radical surgery called "debulking," in which doctors removed her uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, appendix, and seven inches of her intestines. She has never fully recovered.

"It was like I was a bird, flying," Ms. Gubar recalls of her career, "and then I got shot out of the sky and just dropped."

In December of 2009, Ms. Gubar was forced to retire from Indiana, at age 65, after complications from the surgery left her unable to stand for more than 10 minutes. She's endured three rounds of chemotherapy—none with the ultimate promise of saving her life, but of simply buying her several months' remission each time.

During the weeks and months she sat recuperating on a navy-blue couch across from the fireplace in her sprawling home a few miles from the Indiana campus here, Ms. Gubar began reading whatever she could find about cancer. And while she quickly learned that ovarian cancer was often deadly, she found that much of what had been written was "banal, boring, stupid"—self-help books filled with euphemisms that "glamorize the fight against cancer."

So she did what she has done throughout her scholarly career: She turned to other writers' poetry, fiction, and art to make sense of what was happening to her. Then she began weaving pieces of all that into the wrenching story of her own treatment for a book that is due out later this month, called Memoir of a Debulked Woman, from W.W. Norton.

Lifetime of Collaboration

Ms. Gubar started her career when women in academe were relatively rare. Only three female professors were among the 70 in Indiana University's English department when she began working here in 1973. (Now about half of the department's 47 faculty members are female.) That same year, the department also hired Sandra M. Gilbert, and the following fall, when administrators wanted to offer a brand-new class on literature by women, the two female professors volunteered to do it together. What the women didn't realize is that the course would lead them to write a seminal book on 19th-century female novelists as well as spark a lifetime of collaboration.

The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, which Yale University Press published in 1979, was hailed for identifying a distinctly female literary tradition through the writings of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Dickinson, and other Victorian authors. The two professors found patterns that recurred throughout the writings—including characterizations of women as either "angels" or "monsters"—that led them to identify what they called a "striking coherence" in literature by women based on their "common, female impulse to struggle free from social and literary confinement." The book quickly became a touchstone in literary studies.

Although Ms. Gilbert left Indiana to teach at the University of California at Davis in 1974, the two women continued to collaborate over more than three decades. Together, "Gilbert and Gubar," as they became known, wrote or edited a dozen books, including The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English (Norton, 1985), for which they were among those honored as Ms. magazine's woman of the year in 1986.

Separated by 2,000 miles, the pair did most of their writing before e-mail was invented, racking up huge long-distance telephone bills. Ms. Gubar, who is eight years younger than Ms. Gilbert, also flew out to California, where the two would hole up for several days and write, exchange their work, edit, and write some more.

Ms. Gubar has also published widely on her own, writing across genres—including Rooms of Our Own (University of Illinois Press, 2006),­ a fictional account of a year in the life of an English professor that allowed her to examine the advances and shortcomings of the women's movement. She also ventured into religion with a book called Judas: A Biography (Norton, 2009). And when she first became ill with ovarian cancer, she was editing True Confessions: Feminist Professors Tell Stories Out of School (Norton, 2011), about the challenges early feminist professors faced in the 1960s and 70s.

Almost immediately after her diagnosis, Ms. Gubar realized her next book project would revolve around her own unsettling experiences with ovarian cancer. "Here was a new topic arriving with a vengeance as well as an urgency," she writes in her memoir. Ms. Gubar turned to eminent writers to help her understand her condition, in part, she says, because "the great literature has more to tell me than sociologists and self-help people." She also realized that there were almost no detailed personal accounts of ovarian cancer, aside from what was written on e-mail lists by women trading their own stories. "I wrote my memoir because it seemed to me that ovarian cancer had become an unspeakable subject that affected 22,000 women diagnosed in the States every year," she says.

At the beginning of the memoir, Ms. Gubar puts her effort into literary context. "Motivated by a desire to tackle a writing problem that Virginia Woolf believed the literary women of her generation had failed to solve—telling the truth about the experiences of the female body—I sought to record precisely what I could not or would not speak to most of my family and friends."

What follows is a 300-page no-holds-barred account of the debulking operation and its aftermath, which Ms. Gubar likens to "gutting, draining, bagging, and poisoning." She collects metaphors that writers have used for cancer, including "hairball," "cockroach," "crab" and "embryo of evil." Then she comes up with a few of her own. How does she feel? "Hollowed at the hub" and "taxidermied" and—as another ovarian-cancer patient described—"like the victim of an ax murderer."

When Ms. Gubar finds no references in the works of female writers to anything beyond vague "plumbing problems" induced by cancer treatment, she spares no details from her own experience. There is the time she is shopping in a supermarket and realizes she must quickly find a bathroom. "Between the wine racks and the shelves of the deli, the sewer begins backing up with shaking knees, a light sweat, and a stomach- or backache before cramping begins," she writes. "A rushed trip to the lavatory—miles away beyond the checkout lanes—brings massive explosions." She adds: "The stink and filth of shit spills out to splash me with self-loathing, a numb sense of my own stained, sullied being."

Part of Ms. Gubar's problems stem from a hole left in her colon after surgery that eventually results in a dangerous abscess. The infection prevents her from being part of a clinical chemotherapy trial and results in another surgery, in which a six-foot-long plastic tube is inserted into her right buttock to drain the infection, which lies at the coccyx, at the base of her backbone. The painful tube makes it difficult to sit and awkward to get dressed, and causes enormous irritation. Eventually, Ms. Gubar must undergo a colostomy-like procedure that leaves her collecting excrement in a bag taped to her stomach.

Yet few of the many friends who visit her ever learn of what she calls her "intestinal disasters." And throughout her treatment she is baffled by visitors to her home who have no idea how to talk to her about her illness. In her book, Ms. Gubar pokes bitter fun at those who tell her she looks great, despite the fact that her 5-foot- 7-inch frame has dwindled to 100 pounds. Still others want to brush aside the life-threatening nature of her illness with cheery messages like: "Congratulations on your speedy recovery! Can't wait to see you back at work soon."

As remarkable as the physical changes she must endure are the powerful psychological ones. Her previous interest in friendships, in teaching, in marriage, and in motherhood (she has two adult daughters)—everything that mattered, really—nearly disappears. All she can think of is how miserable she is. She quotes from a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, wondering: "How did her life live itself without her?"

The lines of poets whose work she has taught for decades dance in her head. "I am eventually driven to consider my resemblance to zombies and golems, creatures who suffer what John Keats called 'a posthumous existence,'" she writes. "I realize that there might be worse conditions than mortality."

Part of confronting a fatal illness, Ms. Gubar learns, is deciding to what lengths she will go to stave off death. At first she is sure she will pursue only one round of chemotherapy, but then surprises herself when she succumbs to her oncologist's recommendations for more (she's now had three). It is something she finds hard to explain, other than to say that as long as her doctors can assure her that the period of remission will outlast that of the treatment, she will consider their recommendations to proceed.

Throughout her treatment, Ms. Gubar says, she has felt compelled to establish herself with her doctors "as a person and not a sicky." During her visits with her oncologist in Indianapolis, a young woman from Romania, Ms. Gubar likes to talk about literature and about what the doctor's children are reading in school. The doctor even gave Ms. Gubar a book of poetry she wrote in Romanian, and Ms. Gubar paid a graduate student at Indiana to translate some of the verses into English.

Despite her willingness to keep pursuing treatment, at least for now, Ms. Gubar acknowledges that she has contemplated suicide, a thought that is hard to escape given her family's history. Three of her four grandparents (all of them German Jews) killed themselves—at least one in reaction to the possibility of being sent to a concentration camp. And when Ms. Gubar was 15, her father asphyxiated himself at the Brooklyn auto shop he ran near the house where she grew up. Intimately aware of the havoc that a parent's suicide causes a child, she is determined not to follow suit. "I must close this destructive chain in the family," she writes, "by dying of ovarian cancer."

A Mentor and Catalyst

In April of 2010, Indiana University held a special retirement celebration for Ms. Gubar: a one-day symposium that attracted 40 of her former students and her colleagues, who discussed the future of feminist scholarship and Ms. Gubar's legacy.

For some of those who attended, Ms. Gubar's teaching and writing had not only defined feminist literary criticism but transformed the course of their lives and careers. Tricia A. Lootens had finished a master's degree in German at Indiana in the mid-1970s and was planning to pursue a Ph.D. in the field at the University of Wisconsin at Madison when she decided to spend a break between her studies taking an English course from Ms. Gubar. "Part way through Susan's class," she says, "I wrote to Madison and said I'd changed my mind. I'm going into English." Ms. Lootens earned her doctoral degree from Indiana and is now an associate professor of English at the University of Georgia.

Ms. Gubar's students and younger female colleagues call her a warm and generous mentor—the kind of woman who will greet another with "Sweety!" and a kiss on the check. But she is also demanding. "She is like the perfect Jewish grandmother," says Jamie Horrocks, who was Ms. Gubar's research assistant the semester she became ill and is now an assistant professor at Brigham Young University. "She is nurturing, but she'll also kick your butt."

Ms. Gubar's home is filled with paintings and other artwork­—nearly all of it by women—as well as with several quilts she has made herself over the last couple of decades. When she was ill, she worked on one using the pinstriped shirts that her husband, Donald J. Gray—also a retired English professor at Indiana—had worn to the office every day. The two scholars worked together for years before they became partners after the death of Mr. Gray's first wife and Ms. Gubar's divorce.

Ms. Gubar finished writing her memoir in December of 2010, and after a surgery the following month to fix the hole in her colon and relieve the abscess, she is feeling better. She looks thin and a bit pale, but otherwise it is hard to tell what she's been through or, for example, that her feet are permanently numb from the chemo treatments ("at least it isn't my hands," she says).

Ms. Gubar has found the energy to advise a committee in the English department, which is searching for her replacement. And occasionally she goes to the department's headquarters in Ballantine Hall. She no longer has her own office, which she calls "tragic" because she did so much writing there and enjoyed her colleagues. She still keeps the key to her old office on her key chain.

She is overseeing a handful of graduate students who are finishing their dissertations. And lately, Ms. Gubar has even had the energy to hold a few dinner parties of the kind she was famous for among colleagues during her 35 years at Indiana. Just last month she had a few of them over for corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day. "Susan loves a party," says Judith C. Brown, an associate professor of English at Indiana. "She thinks our generation is kind of lame, that we go to bed too early. She enjoys her gin and tonics on her back porch. And she is very fond of the days in which feminists were the bad girls."

Even during the worst of her illness, recalls Ms. Brown, Ms. Gubar would ask, "What are you reading?" And the two women continue to exchange their writing and offer critiques, 10 pages at a time.

Because, perhaps most important to Ms. Gubar, she is working on a new book. "I am always happier when I have a book in progress," she says. "Living with a book in process is like living an alternative reality. You are out of time, it is a kind of transport, a kind of addiction."

This latest book is about fictional accounts of how the sick die. It sounds ghoulish, she acknowledges. But "since that's what I'm facing next, I think it has something to tell me."