Book Talk: Elizabeth Benedict

Politics and Prose
5015 Connecticut Avenue Northwest
Washington, D.C. 20008

By turns somber and funny but above all provocative, Elizabeth Benedict’s Rewriting Illness: A View of My Own is a most unconventional memoir. With wisdom, self-effacing wit, and the story-telling skills of a seasoned novelist, she brings to life her cancer diagnosis and committed hypochondria. As she discovers multiplying lumps in her armpit, she describes her initial terror, interspersed with moments of self-mocking levity as she indulges in “natural remedies,” among them chanting Tibetan mantras, drinking shots of wheat grass, and finding medicinal properties in chocolate babka. She tracks the progression of her illness from muddled diagnosis to debilitating treatment as she gathers sustenance from her family and an assortment of urbane, ironic friends, including her fearless “cancer guru.”

In brief, explosive chapters with startling titles – “Was it the Krazy Glue?” and “Not Everything Scares the Shit out of Me” – Benedict investigates existential questions: Is there a cancer personality? Can trauma be passed on generationally? Can cancer be stripped of its warlike metaphors? How do doctors’ own fears influence their comments to patients? Is there a gendered response to illness? Why isn’t illness one of literature’s great subjects? And delving into her own history, she wonders if having had children would have changed her life as a writer and hypochondriac. Post diagnosis, Benedict asks, “Which fear is worse: the fear of knowing or the reality of knowing? (164)”

Throughout, Benedict’s humor, wisdom, and warmth jacket her fears, which are personal, political, and ultimately global, when the world is pitched into a pandemic. Amid weighty concerns and her all-consuming obsession with illness, her story is filled with suspense, secrets, and even the unexpected solace of silence.

Elizabeth Benedict, whose novels inlcude the national bestseller, Almost, and the National Book Award finalist, Slow Dancing, authored the classic book on writing about sex in fiction, The Joy of Writing Sex, in print for 25 years. Her personal essays have been selected as “Notable” in five editions of Best American Essays. She has written reviews and articles for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Esquire, Real Simple, and Daedalus, and been a regular contributor to Japanese Playboy, Huffington Post and Salmagundi, writing on sexual politics, money, and literature, and on figures from Monica Lewinsky to British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips. She conceived of and edited three prominent anthologies, including NY Times bestseller, What My Mother Gave Me: 31 Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most. Her books are featured regularly in reviews and interviews on All Things Considered, Fresh Air, and many other public radio shows, including the BBC’s “Women’s Hour,” and Australia Public Radio. A graduate of Barnard College, Ms. Benedict has taught creative writing at Princeton, the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and Columbia, and is on the Fiction Faculty at the New York State Summer Writers Institute.

Benedict will be in conversation with Deborah Tannen. Tannen is a Distinguished University Professor and Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University and author of many books and articles. The best known is You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, which was on the New York Times best seller list for nearly four years, including eight months as No. 1, and has been translated into 31 languages. Her books You Were Always Mom’s Favorite! and You’re Wearing THAT? were also New York Times best sellers. Tannen has been a guest on such television and radio news and information shows as The Colbert Report, 20/20, Good Morning America, The Today Show, PBS NewsHour, Charlie Rose, Oprah, among others. She has been featured in and has written for most major newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, HuffPost, Newsweek, Time, USA Today, People, and The Harvard Business Review. She has also published poems, short stories, and personal essays. Her first play, “An Act of Devotion,” is included in The Best American Short Plays 1993-1994. It was produced, together with her play “Sisters,” by Horizons Theatre in Arlington, Virginia.

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