Mary Cappello’s memoir Called Back is a white-knuckle journey through the experience of cancer treatment in America — especially disorienting to navigate as a woman and a lesbian. Her voice is lyrical, unguarded, and often ruefully funny. “Language matters,” she remarks, “positive in cancer land means negative. Dear friends: please stop sending me positive thoughts.”
Cappello is professor of English and creative writing at the University of Rhode Island. Her second collection of literary nonfiction, Awkward: A Detour, which includes an essay on awkwardness and eroticism in The L Word, was a Los Angeles Times bestseller. Reading Called Back, I thought about the Virginia Woolf essay, “On Being Ill,” in which she writes of illness as a sort of underworld — with an enforced silence and inactivity, a removal from life — from which you return altered, but with intellectual and emotional riches. You get to bring treasure back with you. Does that resonate for you?
Mary Cappello: Absolutely, but I think that, with this particular illness and this particular writing, that was something I was experiencing while I was in it. It wasn’t something I came out and reflected on. And that probably surprised me a little. There’s nothing you can predict about this illness.
During it, I was put on high alert in a way, and that’s probably something that happens to a lot of people. Your senses become sharpened. I was already in the writing zone. I was already poised to see things. It felt immediate and urgent and necessary, and I was responding to it in the moment. I can’t imagine writing about all of that retrospectively. But that perceptual thing is very interesting to me. Your senses become heightened, and of course chemotherapy does bizarre things to your sensory apparatus — it’s a heightening and a dulling.

 I was struck by a recurring situation in your book, as you describe your treatment. Hospital caregivers keep trying to place you. They can’t figure out whether to check
married or “single on their forms. They’re totally thrown by your sexuality, even though you have a longtime partner.
 That comes up a lot. I’m shocked by how often even my most progressive doctors, on their data sheet, still don’t have a space for domestic partner, or they ask questions that just presume heterosexuality, and that’s a little shocking to me, at 2009.

We are in a different era, in a lot of ways. My partner was able to be present with me or for me in most of these scenarios. In fact, there was one male doctor who wanted her to be more warm and fuzzy, but she’s very rational. They wanted her to play a role she didn’t want to play.

- Called Back is in stores now from Alyson Books

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