Heroines Both Real and Imagined

I spent the summer of 1956, when I was ten years old, reading in a coconut grove. My family was staying at a beach house at Punalu’u on the north shore of O’ahu, and my mother was suffering from what the newspaper later called a “nervous condition.” I had decided that there were body parts on the floor of the ocean, and refused to go into the water, much to the puzzlement of my younger brothers and sisters. The days were very long, as summer days are for children in the countryside. The trees in the grove were said to have been planted by King Kamehameha IV in 1850. There was the sound of the trade wind in the branches, and I could just make out the voices of my brothers and sisters over the constant rush and sweep of the ocean.

Fanny Burney at age thirty-two, in a portrait by her cousin, Edward Burney, 1785
Fanny Burney at age thirty-two, in a portrait by her cousin, Edward Burney, 1785

My mother possessed, among other gifts, a willingness to indulge the imagination of a child, which led to misunderstandings (severed legs on the ocean floor), but also to intuitive acts of sympathy and kindness. She wrote a letter to the small local library which enabled me to borrow books from the adult section, otherwise denied me by the stern librarian. Among the books that I chose, ostensibly for my mother, were Forever Amber, an historical novel set in seventeenth-century London by Kathleen Winsor which had been banned as pornography in fourteen states; Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” is a line still emblazoned in my soul); and Fanny Burney’s novel, Evelina. All of them the stories of young women making their way in a treacherous, but gratifyingly sexy world. Just the names of the characters were enough, given my mildly hallucinatory state, to thrill me: Amber St. Clair, Evelina Anville (almost an anagram), Maxim de Winter. I was particularly fascinated by Miss Burney, and later read her distressing description of her mastectomy, performed in Paris in 1811:

I mounted, therefore, unbidden, the Bed stead — & M. Dubois placed me upon the Mattress, & spread a cambric handkerchief upon my face. It was transparent, however, & I saw, through it, that the Bed stead was instantly surrounded by the 7 men and my nurse. I refused to be held; but when, Bright through the cambric, I saw the glitter of polished steel —- I closed my eyes. I would not trust to convulsive fear the sight of the terrible incision. Yet — when the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast — cutting through veins — arteries — flesh — nerves — I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision — and I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still! so excruciating was the agony.

I had never read anything like it (it is in a long letter to her sister, Esther), until I recently came across the missionary Lucy Thurston’s account of her own mastectomy in the fall of 1855 in Honolulu, also performed without anesthesia, while I was doing research for a non-fiction book about Hawai’i. The two accounts are dissimilar in one sense, however. Lucy, I suspect, did not utter a sound.

In the following excerpt from Lucy’s journal, Persis is her daughter; Asa is her husband, the Reverend Asa Thurston:

I took my seat in the chair. Persis and Asa stood at my right side; Persis to hand me restoratives; Asa to use his strength, if self-control were wanting. Dr. Judd stood at my left elbow for the same reason; my shawl was thrown off, exhibiting my left arm, breast and side, perfectly bare . . . Dr. Ford looked me full in the face, and with great firmness asked: ‘Have you made up your mind to have it cut out?’ ‘Yes, sir; but let me know when you begin, that I may be able to bear it. Have you your knife in your hand now?’ He opened his hand that I might see it, saying ‘I am going to begin now.’ Then came a gash long and deep, first on one side of my breast, and then on the other. Deep sickness seized me, and deprived me of my breakfast. This was followed by extreme faintness. My sufferings were no longer local. There was a general feeling of agony through the whole system. I felt, every inch of me, as though flesh was failing . . . Persis and Asa were devotedly employed in sustaining me with the use of cordials, ammonia, bathing my temples . . . It was nearly an hour and a half that I was beneath [Dr. Ford’s] hand, in cutting out the entire breast, in cutting out the glands beneath the arm, in tying the arteries, in absorbing the blood, in sewing up the wound, in putting on the adhesive plaster, and in applying the bandage…The views and feelings of that hour are now vivid to my recollection. It was during the cutting process that I began to talk. The feeling that I had reached a different point from those by whom I was surrounded, inspired me with freedom . . . the doctor, after removing the entire breast, said to me, ‘I want to cut yet more, round under your arm’ . . . the wound had the appearance of being more than a foot long. Eleven arteries were taken up.

Lucy’s memory of events after the surgery was less clear. She told Persis that it must have been the paregoric that caused her to forget, but Persis reminded her that no sedative of any kind had been given her.

Lucy and Asa Thurston
Lucy and Asa Thurston
That was the beginning. I would sometimes spend the entire day in the grove, wrapped in a mat when I grew sleepy, dimly and uneasily aware that while I didn’t yet understand what it meant to be attached to this Earth, I must not make the mistake of imagining that happiness, or even beauty, was something available to everyone. Thanks to the books I borrowed from the library, I was able to exchange, at least for a little while, turmoil for silence, in the hope — always — that the essence of things might be found in books, the essence of something, which would perhaps reveal to me a small part of the world’s mystery.

4 thoughts on “Heroines Both Real and Imagined

  1. Jill & John March 24, 2015 / 4:32 am

    I have read Lucy’s account several times and am always amazed at how brave she must have been.

    Enjoyed your comments. Luv Jill

    Sent from my iPad



  2. repete62@myfairpoint.net March 24, 2015 / 5:37 am

    This poignant essay is so filled with both beauty and horror I almost don’t know how to hold them both in my head. It’ such a tribute to Susanna Moore that’s she’s able to present both in her writing. I’m deeply moved, not for the first time, by her poetic prose.


  3. Peter Davis March 24, 2015 / 5:42 am

    Dear Susanna,

    How superb a combination of beauty and terror in this essay, or blog, or whatever form this is. I hope you got my “comment” but if not, you’re posting wonderful and evocative pieces on this site. Alicia wants me to tell you she signed up for your blog, but she has stopped getting it. Are you still in Hawaii, or are you on the other side of the International Date Line? Reason I ask is that your blog came in as having been posted on March 24th, which I believe is not what time it is now in Hawaii.

    Anyway, please keep these beauties coming. I’ve read about your mother before in what you’ve written. You must have had a Brontesque childhood, and good for you for making such a masterful writer and great person out of such clay.




    • Flora Biddle March 29, 2015 / 5:45 pm

      OMG Susanna, what TERRIBLE stories, what unbelievable agonies– I’m still shuddering just reading them, the extraordinary words of those women–can’t even imagine the extent of that pain. And you were only TEN, no one to share it all with– Thanks for deep feeling, beauty side by side with horror– your writing and you, so amazing.
      love and admiration from Flora


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