By Gary Schmidgall
If you ever run into Lynne Greenberg, don't tell her (even if you're the former president who made the phrase famous), "I feel your pain." She just might deck you. Ask her how she's doing, and you stand a good chance of hearing a curt: "I'm doing pain."
Greenberg has earned an honorary doctorate in pain - in addition to her J.D. from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from the CUNY Graduate Center - and knows that "pain is by its nature isolating." The truth of pain is not communicable, cannot be felt by another. Pain can be written about, however - a fact that Greenberg reveals all too scarily in her harrowing, stripped-to-the-naked-truth new memoir, The Body Broken (Random House), which might well carry the subtitle "A World of Pain, Not Much Gain."
At the beginning of the fall term in 2006, news traveled quickly around the Hunter College English Department that Greenberg, our elegant, lissome and congenial resident Miltonist, was suddenly obliged to take a medical leave of absence. A few attempts to reach out and some vague hallway gossip left the cause a mystery. The Body Broken reveals all: Its subject is the mystery of chronic pain, which, in a concluding "Author's Note," Greenberg tells us one American adult in five suffers from. The book reveals how right Milton was when he wrote in Paradise Lost: "Pain is perfect misery, the worst/ Of evils, and, excessive, overturns/ All patience."
The specific cause of Greenberg's pain, however, proved no mystery. At the age of 19, she was on summer break from Brown University, at home in Missouri and speeding to a beer-bust with her date. He hit a ditch, catapulting his car down a 30-foot cliff and ejecting her onto a cornfield. He was unharmed. The most serious of her many injuries was a broken dens, the tooth-like projection on her spine's second cervical vertebra, which serves as a pivot point for the rotation of the first cervical vertebra and enables the head to swivel. The successful fusion of Greenberg's C2 with a "halo" brace was hailed as a medical miracle: Fewer than 1 percent of those who suffer such a trauma survive and also walk normally again.
Fast forward 22 carefree years, during which Greenberg graduated, went on to law school, married a fellow lawyer (now a senior ABC News journalist), had a son and a daughter, forsook the law for literature and established a cozy domestic life in "our own little Eden," a charming one-block-long Brooklyn street named, all too Miltonically, Garden Place.
Then, while doing summer research in London at the House of Lords Record Office in 2006, it happened: A "sharp, intense headache" settled in and refused to subside. After a few false starts, Greenberg learned from MRIs back in New York that her dens had, in fact, never fused. And so she began a year's worth of "confusions, fruitless wanderings, and ill-conceived journeys" through the labyrinth of neurology and pain management, always ending up staring at that monstrous Minotaur, pain.
She became a bartender of "veritable drug cocktails." In the spirit of Emily Dickinson's "Good-by to the life I used to live,/ And the world I used to know," Greenberg began to divide her life into its b.p. (before pain) and a.p. (after pain) segments. In unflinching terms she also describes her psychological descent: "Jealous, brittle with envy, I resented anyone who still had an intact life. My mind ... was utterly self-involved and myopic: me, me, me ..." Her devotion to pain made her, in Milton's phrase, "a Church of one."
Unable to read and keep up with Milton studies and fretful even about remembering the names of 90 students, she pondered gloomily the end of teaching. Of course, suicide beckoned: "Crestfallen, I fantasized about crest falling ... I had fallen off a cliff once before; I could do it again." Woven among the book's 39 short chapters are several poignant ones analyzing the trauma inflicted on husband and children by Greenberg's sudden transformation into a bedridden "Nobody" a la Dickinson ("I'm Nobody! Who are you?").
Reading The Body Broken provides a daunting sense of the jungle of possible treatments one must hack through in search of, if not a cure, at least substantial palliation. Judging from Greenberg's experience, one can easily end up trying Plan Z. Take the excruciating $75,000 operation to fuse that pesky dens once and for all. The surgeon pronounced success, but the pain stayed put - and she also experienced a very Miltonic (but temporary) post-op period of blindness. Greenberg took her father-in-law's advice to "Treat your injury as you would a research paper," and she ended up surfing the Web and trying many treatments (often contending with diametrically opposed opinions), though drawing the line at magnets, faith healers and big rubber bands around the head. She finally learned to be commander-in-chief of this war.
I'm happy to report that the sense of humor I remember b.p. is evident in The Body Broken, though now with an inevitable tinge of the gallows. Greenberg sees in her file that her doctors see an "adjustment disorder." She had to look this up, and wryly explains, "it seems that there is a 'normal' way to respond to chronic pain and an 'abnormal' way." She also looks back bemusedly on her attempt to replace doing pain with doing plastic - buying Prada suits and Chloe cocktail dresses she couldn't wear. Retail therapy, she calls it.
During the feckless fusion operation, the beloved family dog had to be euthanized, and there was black-crepe chortling between husband and wife about this as a treatment option. On a wackier note, Greenberg accepts her first marijuana joint from a friend during a fancy book-party attended by celebrities, socialites and paparazzi. She gets stoned, the pain vanishes, and the epiphany turns her flamboyantly, embarrassingly joyous. Later, the pain returned.
It is also reassuring to see many signs in The Body Broken that Greenberg has not lost touch with her identity as a professor of poetry. Every chapter carries a poetic epigraph that is shrewdly worked into the following discussion: several from Milton, but ranging widely from George Herbert's "The Collar" (very apt to the site of pain here) to the Rolling Stones ("I can't get no satisfaction"), to Louise Gluck ("Tell me this is the future,/ I won't believe you"). Movingly, she even gets poetry out of a nerve rhizotomy (nerve-blocking) injection that gave her 10 pain-free days.
Poetry also helps her to define her agony: "Pain, I realized, does not fit into the tamed heartbeat of iambic pentameter ... it refuses closure and explodes rhyme and reason. All-consuming, it does not permit the luxury of metaphoric or chiasmic thinking, tropes or symbols, wit or pun. Its sound is unsound, dysphony, a wail, silence." A nice professorial touch - like a handout - is an appendix with 10 poems that helped in the struggle with pain.
Of books with a happy ending, Greenberg says, "Such a book I cannot write." She acknowledges in the final pages, "The most absorbing relationship in my life, unfortunate to admit, is still pain." She therefore opts for a bittersweet ending, making the expulsion of Adam and Eve at the end of "Paradise Lost" her final epigraph: "Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;/ The World was all before them."
Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I see at the end of The Body Broken a glass half full. First, because Greenberg says she vows to carry with her (they are the book's last four words) "the poetry of hope." Second, because she returned to Hunter last fall, teaching wall-to-wall Milton - for her students and colleagues at least, paradise regained.
The timing couldn't be better for the release of Philip Alcabes' acclaimed new book, Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics From the Black Death to the Avian Flu (Public Affairs). Alcabes, an infectious-disease epidemiologist and associate professor in the urban public health program at Hunter College's School of Health Sciences, discusses notorious epidemics throughout history and explains what our fears about them tell us about ourselves.
In Gray Panthers, Queens College anthropology professor Roger Sanjek tells the story of the social justice organization started in 1970 by Philadelphian Maggie Kuhn, who at age 65 began opposing the idea of mandatory retirement. Published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, the book tells how she and her cohorts were inspired by the civil rights and anti-war movements to found an activist group that soon attracted supporters of all ages. Their national causes have ranged from nursing home reform to affordable housing to elimination of nuclear weapons. Kuhn died in 1995, but the movement continues.
Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher, by Queens College professor of English Charles Molesworth and Purdue University professor of philosophy Leonard Harris, traces the youth and career of the man they call "the most influential African American intellectual born between W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr." Published by the University of Chicago Press.
In Near Black: White-to-Black Passing in American Culture, John Jay College assistant professor of English Baz Dreisinger explores what she calls "reverse racial passing." She examines books, films and other narratives depicting whites passing for black over the centuries starting from the 1830s and over contexts from slavery to civil rights. Published by the University of Massachusetts Press.