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The Camera My Mother Gave Me Hardcover – October 2, 2001

3.7 out of 5 stars 41 customer reviews

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Amazon.com Review

This isn't a book you'll want to pull out on a crowded train, with clinical terms like clitoris and vulvologist, not to mention earthier ones like the F word, on virtually every page to attract the startled attention of the passenger in the next seat. Bluntly describing her yearlong effort to deal with a searing pain in her vagina, Susanna Kaysen doesn't stint on the details of what this malady did to her relationship with her boyfriend (nothing good), nor is she forgiving of the callousness and stupidity displayed by some of her doctors and various alternative health practitioners. Yet her appalling saga is compulsively readable, thanks to Kaysen's propulsive prose and sharp dialogue. She's particularly good at capturing the way people talk about their ailments over dinner and in the middle of other activities. Conversations with friends ramble from her medical problem to tiger maple furniture in an utterly convincing way, and one darkly funny scene shows a pal urging Kaysen to buy a coral necklace following a particularly horrid visit to the doctor because, "You have to get a nice thing after that appointment." Kaysen's laconic humor keeps the book from seeming self-pitying, though her terseness tends to muffle its emotional impact; she expresses her emotions without really conveying them to the reader in any depth. Nonetheless, the pared-down candor that made her portrait of mental illness so gripping in Girl, Interrupted also distinguishes this account of a decidedly physical affliction. --Wendy Smith

From Publishers Weekly

Eight years ago, Kaysen's affecting story of her two years in a psychiatric hospital, Girl, Interrupted, helped sparked the memoir craze and later became a Hollywood blockbuster. Now Kaysen, also an accomplished novelist (Asa, As I Knew Him; Far Afield), returns with this thin, disappointing chronicle of what happened when "something went wrong" with her vagina. The terse narrative chronicles her quest to determine the cause of and cure for disabling vaginal pain vestibulitis, the medical term for a "sore spot" on the wall of her vagina. The most intriguing element is Kaysen's explosive relationship with an unnamed live-in boyfriend who, despite her pain, pressures her to have intercourse: "I want to fuck you, goddammit, he said, lunging at me, pushing his hand between my legs. I jumped out of bed. I was naked... I ran downstairs. All I could think of was to get away from the bed and from him and his fingers. I pressed my back against the wall in the living room and shook, from cold and the remnants of my desire." Later, sans boyfriend, Kaysen reflects too briefly on how she's changed as her desire for sex evaporates, concluding, "when eros goes away, life gets dull." Stingy with basic facts the reader is left wondering how old she is and how she spends her days (writing? teaching?) the memoir is admirable in its honesty and insights into medicine's limits. (Oct.)Forecast: Already the subject of a New York Times piece suggesting this "autopathography" may become the target of a backlash against such transgressive confessions, Kaysen's slight memoir will spark some controversy, but don't expect Girl, Interrupted-level sales.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (October 2, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679443908
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679443902
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.8 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,901,890 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Erica S. Maniez on November 2, 2001
Format: Hardcover
My opinions about Kaysen's books are shaped largely by the fact that I suffer from the same malady this book describes, vulvar vestibulitis, a form of vulvodynia (literally "painful vulva"). It was an overwhelming relief to read this book, to hear another woman talking about her experience with this disorder and facing many of the same challenges I have faced. Among the two largest of these are trying to talk to friends and family about a disorder that few people know about and that very few feel comfortable discussing (how many friends can you talk frankly about your genitals with? think about it) and trying to have an intimate relationship with someone when sex is painful, difficult, or downright impossible.
The book is well-written and very readable. Kaysen even manages to be funny. The novel focuses on Kaysen's personal experience, and does not claim to be a medical guide - this is what makes it an interesting read for anyone, not just those affected with vulvodynia. I disagree with Kaysen's attitudes about potential treatment (she seems to dismiss some things out of hand, in my opinion) but I'm overwhelmingly grateful to her for sharing her experience.
Some statistics say that 15% of women have some form of vulvodynia during the course of their life. If more women with vulvodynia - and more who, like Kaysen, are already in the public eye - would speak out about their experiences, the rest of us would not feel so isolated.
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Format: Hardcover
As in "Girl, Interrupted," Susanna Kaysen focuses her sharp camera-eye on a reality not often talked about. In "Girl, Interrupted" these realities largely centered around mental illness and definitions of such for women. In "The Camera My Mother Gave Me," the realities are vulvar disorders - causes, treatments, explanations, talking with others about it - and figuring out its meaning.
I liked this book largely because it was a very true story not just about Kaysen's life, but about many women who struggle with a vulvar disorder - be in vestibulitis (as Kaysen has), vulvodynia, lichen sclerosus - even vulvar cancer.
Women with vulvar disorders often wonder if they are alone, why hasn't there been more research in years or in decades (Kaysen and her research and medical colleagues make this point, too) - is this a reflection on mental state? or is there really a physical cause? is it a connection between the two that may exacerbate the terrible lows of the disorder? These are questions that women diagnosed with vulvar disorders grapple with.
It was also fascinating to read this book years after having read "Girl, Interrupted" - and to really empathize with her reaction when she is faced with the prospect of having to take tricyclic antidepressants or an SSRI such as Prozac. Having this thread of her autobiographies gave "The Camera My Mother Gave Me" much added weight.
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By A Customer on August 24, 2003
Format: Hardcover
'The camera my mother gave me' is a fabulous read about Kaysen's experience with Vestibulitis - a condition that of the vulva that is rarely spoken or written about due to its intimate nature - despite the thousands, perhaps millions of women who suffer from the disease - mostly in silence.
This book is wonderfully written in a sarcastic, witty manner that will appeal not only to people with Vulvar Pain conditions - I'd recommend it to anyone. As a fellow Vestibulitis sufferer, I related to all her experiences, especially her frustrating attempts to find the answers from various health proffesionals who lack the knowledge to treat this terrible condition - mostly due to the lack of research and the wide variety of causes and symptoms.
I must warn all Vesitbulitis/Vulvodynia sufferers NOT to seek the answers from this book!! I made that mistake. I was devasted to find that the book ends with Kaysen calling off her search for the solution and resolving to live with her condition. Although that was a perfectly suitable ending to the book, it is not the answer I was looking for. I refuse to live with this condition and will not give up until I find the cure. So, laugh and cry along with Kaysen, celebrate her courage in writing this book, be encouraged in your efforts to speak up about your condition, but turn instead to support groups for companionship along your journey. I hope more and more women will speak up and demand a better understanding of vulvar pain disorders among the medical community and the public. We need answers!
Thank you Susanna Kaysen!! I hope you are rid of this awful condition!
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Format: Hardcover
My god, what a life Kaysen, the author of "Girl, Interrupted," a memoir about her teenage years in a mental institution, has had. First that and now this -- a follow-up memoir about her experiences years later with a mysterious and ultimately untreatable vaginal syndrome, the main symptom of which is unbearable and constant pain. As she struggles with the pain and her frustration over her doctors' inability to find out what is causing it, she also finds herself battling her boyfriend who has no compassion for her problem and just accuses of her not wanting to have sex with him anymore.
Again, Kaysen does not shy away from all the gory details -- including the intense emotional ups and downs that ensue. But it was really her words on chronic pain that truly affected me. The realization, for example, that, honestly, the pain itself isn't the worst part of chronic pain. The worst part is the fact that you can't ever leave it. Even when you are distracted into forgetting it's there -- it's ALWAYS THERE. And this, more than the pain itself, is what makes people with chronic pain so incredibly exhausted.
As someone in that category myself (though my pain is in my hands), I could really relate to her stories -- her guilt (is this my fault? did I do something wrong? if I don't want to try something that might help, does that mean I don't want to get better?), her frustration, her fear that it's "all in her head," and, most of all, her ultimate decision not to let it rule her life anymore. She says at one point she felt like she'd become a vagina -- a walking, talking vagina, the pain had so consumed her world. And that changed everything. That was unacceptable.
This is a short but incredibly powerful book.
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