Sick Chick Lit: An Interview with Karen de Balbian Verster

11-03-2007 05;36;24PM

Karen de Balbian Verster
Karen de Balbian Verster

Boob: A Story of Sex, Cancer & Stupidity

Beyond Chemotherapy

Karen de Balbian Verster’s Boob: A Story of Sex, Cancer & Stupidity does more than put cancer in lipstick and high heels. It tells a woman’s breast cancer story within the context of an evolving feminist consciousness — from circle pins and virginity in the 60s, to modeling and bi-sexual threesomes in the 70s, to feminist awakening in the 80s and chemotherapy, motherhood and enlightenment in the 90s.

De Balbian Verster’s fanciful, feminist novel fittingly depicts cancer as a murdering psychopath. Shortly after fictional heroine Kyra Copperfield receives a Stage IV breast cancer diagnosis, she is captured by a serial killer who promises to delay her demise if she amuses him by telling stories about herself. Scheherazade, meet Hannibal Lechter.  As Kyra tells the story of her life, she regains the will to live and finds the courage to escape.

I talked to author Karen de Balbian Verster about the genesis of her novel, her life, and the book publishing experience in an age of celebrity culture.

CG: Your book is titled Boob: A Story of Sex, Cancer & Stupidity — youdon’t stint on the sex. I took the stupidity to mean getting caught up in the promiscuity of the 1970s.  

KdeBV: I wanted to cover every connotation of the word boob, plus I liked the alliteration and the way stupidity falls trippingly from the tongue.  Sex was definitely my main area of stupidity, but I was pretty stupid as well about friendships, family, professional relationships and my career as well. As a teenager, I blew the chance to make the leap from small-town model/celebrity to cover girl by destroying my looks. I put myself through college bartending, a safe haven that gave me a sense of family but fed my burgeoning alcoholism. The more devoted of my customers attended my graduation from Parsons School of Design. Only when they started asking when I’d get a real job did it sink in that I couldn’t stay behind a bar forever. I found a job as an assistant art director at a small advertising agency and was quickly offered a promotion, but I muddied the waters by sleeping with a head honcho, and the offer disappeared.

You write, on arriving in New York: “I had a consuming desire to be picked up, as if it conferred validation, like a network picking up a show.” I remember that mentality. Do you have any thoughts on the seventies sex scene, versus the “hooking up” culture today? I heard a program recently on NPR featuring college newspaper sex columnists hyping hooking up as if it were new.  When I started dating in the 70s, hookups were rampant, and serious, marriage-minded relationships the only alternative. I wonder what’s so new? 

Just as it’s hard to believe that people would begin to smoke nowadays with all the information available regarding its deleterious effects, so it’s hard to believe that people would “hook up.” But when I was younger I was hell-bent on committing suicide on the installment plan, so I doubt I would have heeded any STD warnings. I have a daughter, and I certainly worry. But instead of lecturing her on the damage promiscuity can cause, I’ve focused on boosting her self-esteem and encouraging her to say no, two tools I lacked as a young woman. I’ve tried to limit her exposure to gratuitous film sex, but have responded openly and frankly to any questions she has about sex. I’ve also taken every opportunity to denigrate stupid behaviors stemming from alcohol abuse, and to protect her from situations where she might be vulnerable.

(Excerpt, p. 97) Mom had never told me anything about sex other than to keep my vagina tight.   

In your book, you detail two rapes you didn’t recognize as such at the time. In the 1990s, Katie Roiphe’s controversial book, The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus debunked the concept of date rape in favor of “do me” feminism. I remember reading an essay the novelist Mary Gaitskill wrote in response, commenting that in once failing to say a definitive No to a male visitor, she “raped herself.”  In a climactic moment towards the end of your book, the heroine attends a self-defense workshop in which she learns to say no, and realizes that a man who raped her (and with whom she subsequently had an affair) — was not a rapist, but merely an opportunist. The sexual politics here are complex — do you wonder if the sexually liberated “do-me” feminist young women of today will look back on their sexual pasts differently than they experience them in the moment? 

I hate to generalize that anyone who is raped has “raped herself.” That’s a judgment call only the individual can make. But here’s something to think about – date rape can only occur in a climate that allows it to occur. By that I mean date rape can’t occur if your parents are in the next room or you’re at a chaperoned party. If society thinks, as it used to, that it’s inappropriate for a young woman to be alone with a man, then there is much less opportunity for the man to date rape her. The girls in my daughter’s school are very sensitive to what is and is not acceptable to their peers, so since society doesn’t frown on an unmarried man and woman being alone together, why should they?

I was sexually abused twice as a young child, came close to being kidnapped by a man who I’m sure was a serial killer, and then was raped by three men. Only after years of self-examination can I evaluate those acts, and conclude that in almost all of them there was some element of both my wanting to be desired and fearing to say no that put me in a position to be harmed, making it hard to escape the idea that I didn’t contribute in some way to the outcome.

But none of this was in the forefront of my sexual activity; I forgot these events and/or didn’t regard them as rapes. And even though I continued to be dominated by the need to be desired and the fear of saying no, I viewed myself as a sexually liberated “do-me” feminist young woman. I might have come through those years unscathed and without regrets, had not the element of alcohol undermined my ability to discern appropriate men.

 (Excerpt, p. 58) You let a guy talk trash to you, you let him put his hand on your thigh, you let him kiss you – all the time not wanting any of it to happen – and wham! Bam! Thank you Ma’am you’ve just given the guy permission to rape, torture and kill you. But cheer up. If you stick with it long enough, pretty soon they don’t have to do any of the work. You can do all the damage yourself. I saw an immediate affinity between Boob and the Vagina Monologues – which I had the privilege to read a dozen years ago, before it became a phenomenon. It jumped off of the slush pile of Global City Review – a journal our City College grad school teacher Linsey Abrams founded, and where we both served as editors. VM was pulled from my issue because it was just being picked up Off Broadway. As it turns out, a version of the Boob sex bits was staged at the Actors Studio.  I can see how these scenes would also be tough to watch.  But in this memoir-ish novel, an older, wiser, funnier voice comments on a scene that relayed straight, is just plain tragic. You write a hilarious scene where Kyra  winds up on national T.V. for her participation in a masturbation workshop. Did you do this, and did it really help you? And the Man Moratorium? Did this happen too?

The Actors Studio reading had about four times more “sexcapades” than made it into Boob, and it was actually pretty funny since there were three very talented men playing all the male roles (Steve Geng, who just published his memoir, Thick as Thieves, was one of them), but the actress playing Kyra hated the abuse the character takes and her portrayal vacillated between “get me out of here” and “I can’t believe what a slut she is.”I was indeed on the Geraldo show entitled “How to Have Better Sex” on June 8, 1988 and the dialogue in that scene is almost verbatim. Oddly enough, taking a masturbation workshop helped me to gain self-acceptance – between the sex abuse, the rapes, and the drunken promiscuity I had no idea what was normal for me—and, like Dorothy, I learned that there’s no place like home and the power to get back there was within me all the time.The Man Moratorium was the happiest time of my single life! The way it started was first I decided not to let guys pay for anything anymore because then I wouldn’t feel obligated to sleep with them. This felt so good, I decided to dispense with dating altogether. I finally had a reason to say no! It was the first time I felt “unfettered and alive,” as Joni MitchellThe heroine of your book, after her fourth recurrence, Just Says No to her Serial Killer/Doctor who wants to keep operating on her.  I didn’t take this to mean you’re telling all breast cancer survivors to go holistic — but to take control of their treatment.  

She says no to the doctor who wants to give her reconstructive surgery, which is an entirely elective procedure. The message in Boob is: to thine own self be true. Twisting myself into a pretzel to please others was very unhealthy for me, likewise, my efforts to placate the doctors made my cancer treatments very stressful. I’m not advocating that every person follow alternative cancer treatments, but I am advocating that every person research and follow the cancer treatment they feel most confident about – and that takes self-knowledge.

I think the passage toward the end of the book where you discuss the allure of modeling is very insightful. Despite being a feminist, you were still regretting not making a big success as a model. Modeling is bigger than ever now, with TV show devoted exclusively to the trade. Any thoughts, advice on this, or comments to aspiring young models?  

Models today have a haughty look that appeals to me (and presumably others), inducing me to confer power based on the illusion of power but ultimately it’s a Pyrrhic victory. I highly disapprove of the bizarre body image that is being promulgated by the fashion and movie industries. One company that has gone against this trend is Wal-Mart which uses their employees as models in their catalogues. These women are very attractive to me even if they’re not conventionally beautiful and/or slim because they are real. It seems to me that our culture’s fixation with the model’s fantasy exterior is due to lack of interior attention, and the more vapid one is, the more likely one is to try to achieve outer rather than inner fulfillment.

Hearing you read portions of your book aloud brought back a lot of the fun, and dare I say, innocence of sex in the post-hippie era. There was a certain openness — such as when you went out with a boyfriend who you took to be a surfer/hippie type, and found out he was a genuine street bum. Also, the adventure of sex in the pre-AIDs era — such as having a threesome with two gay guys, out of curiosity. Clearly, it wasn’t all masochistic — at what point did the spirit of Fear of Flying dovetail into low self-esteem promiscuity?

This is a hard question to answer. I really thought I was having a blast the whole time, perhaps because I never once had sober sex, so it wasn’t until I ended up with the homeless guy almost at the end of my singles sex life that I had a glimmer that maybe I wasn’t having as much fun as I thought, and certainly wasn’t as discerning as I thought. It was the cumulative effect, like all the drops in Chinese water torture, that did me in. I shudder to think how I would’ve performed if AIDS was an issue when I was single since I certainly racked up (and transmitted) my share of STDs. If I’d had a third of the partners I had (the best third – the ones I really wanted to be with) and three times the self confidence I had at the time, I think I could say it was all worthwhile.

  (Excerpt, p. 266) You’re walking along and it’s a peerless day – clear blue skies, temps in the seventies. The last thing on your mind is the thought of an attack. Then BAM! The planes collide, the building collapses, and nothing will ever be the same. You can’t ever really enjoy a peerless day again, because every time you hear a plane it might be a terrorist. Every time you get a headache, it might be cancer. How do you live life without a future? That’s the conundrum of cancer. You have to be willing to die, to live.