Richard McCann :: living as ’The Resurrectionist’
Richard McCann may be an acclaimed writer. But first and foremost, he is a survivor. Diagnosed with hepatitis C in 1990, he sickened to the point of having to face the reality of a liver transplant a few years later. That experience changed him for life and became the subject of an essay, The Resurrectionist, first published in the 1999 premiere issue of Tin House magazine. The piece is one of several that comprise an ongoing memoir-in-progress from which McCann will read on October 8, 2010 at the San Francisco LGBT Center.
The Resurrectionist is simple, spare, and poised. "Here’s what happened," McCann tells his readers at the outset. "I was cut apart. The liver of a dead person was put in me so I might live again." In the compelling pages that follow, the writer describes his struggle with liver failure. He recalls the physically and psychologically excruciating wait for the new organ that would return him to the world of the living. And he reflects on how his body - and especially his view of it - changed after surgery. Now he was "made . . . of something rescued from the graveyard."
As a person living with hepatitis C and a liver not organically his own, the writer comes to experience his difference from healthy people with unnerving keenness. McCann recounts how a man on an airplane stares as he swallows the handful of pills "that kept my body from rejecting the organ it would forever perceive as foreign." The writer is forced to ease his seatmate’s discomfort by explaining his condition - only to be asked the gender and ethnicity of his organ donor and whether he’d heard about the man with AIDS "who’d gotten a liver from a baboon."
Part of what makes McCann’s work so poignant is the way his illness allows him to understand loss and the sufferings of the gay community viscerally. Brought face-to-face with his own mortality, the survivor’s guilt he once felt over the many friends who died from AIDS disappears. "[I]t had been a relief to be diagnosed, to have a progressive disease that threatened my life . . . ’It’s like you’re one of us, now,’ my friend Kenny had told me. ’It’s like you’ve got AIDS.’"
McCann is a long-time member of the creative writing faculty at American University in Washington, D.C. who has received grants from such organizations as the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Christopher Isherwood Foundation and the Fulbright Foundation. His major published work includes an award-winning collection of poems, Ghost Letters and a novel, Mother of Sorrows. McCann’s writing has also appeared in such magazines as The Atlantic, Esquire, Ploughshares, and the Washington Post Magazine, and has been anthologized in such prestigious collections as The O. Henry Prize Stories 2007 and Best American Essays 2000. I recently had the good fortune to interview this gifted and courageous writer about his latest literary effort and his experiences with illness and mortality.
Why a memoir?
EDGE: You first wrote The Resurrectionist as an essay 10 years ago. Now, you’re transforming it into a memoir. What inspired you to expand the essay into a book and why the lag time?
Richard McCann: Actually, I’ve been developing it into a series of linked autobiographical narratives that also serve as meditations on the nature and meanings of illness and mortality. Although I began these essays 10 years ago, I spent time in between finishing a collection of stories, Mother of Sorrows (Vintage, 2006), that novelist Michael Cunningham termed "almost unbearably beautiful." I don’t think of the time as a "lag" quite, unless I’m very unhappy - a character in a Grace Paley story says, "There is in me a long time between knowing and telling." And that’s true of me, too. It’s hard to know what makes readiness happen or what it is that allows us finally to see how to finish what has been in process.
EDGE: How did the experience of a having a liver transplant, which you chronicle in your memoir, change your sense of self?
Richard McCann: Yes, unquestionably, as did the experience of being ill. I was not new to illness - a number of friends and my former partner had died in the preceding years of HIV-related complications, and my best friend had died of melanoma; but I hadn’t until my transplant been the body under discussion, as it were. I’d been among the talkers.
EDGE: At the time of your illness, your mother was suffering from dementia. How did your transplant affect your perspective of her situation?
Richard McCann: It’s not possible to know this, in that there was no way I could known what my experience would have been without my illness. The only thing I know for certain is that I could not travel for about a year, and in the year in which I could not travel, my mother began to deteriorate more rapidly. When I saw her about four months after my transplant - well, that was the last time I was absolutely certain she knew who I was. I’m glad she was able to see me then, to see evidence of my having lived, especially because I had a brother who had died. I didn’t want to be the second one. I wanted her to have the chance to die before one of her other children died.
From caregiver to patient
EDGE: Like many of your generation, you lost people close to you as a result of the AIDS crisis of the 80s and 90s. What did being ill/receiving a transplant do to your understanding of that crisis and the deaths you saw around you?
Richard McCann: This is part of what I’m writing about and thus difficult to summarize. But I can say here that after the advent of AIDS - which, for me, occurred in about 1984, after I returned to the United States, not long before my partner was diagnosed - I came somehow to believe that illness could proceed only in one direction, toward death, and I lost all sense of what it meant to recover from something. As one who is HIV-negative, and whose friends were often HIV-positive, I sometimes felt I was not a part of my own community, and although I did not want to get HIV, I have to say that I felt an odd relief almost when I was diagnosed with liver disease, as if I could now join my friends in their larger concerns of living and dying. Well, that maybe overstates it. Let’s just say that I after I was diagnosed, I felt I had set up my tent among my friends . . .
The issue for me was not so much how my transplant made me see AIDS as it was the other way around -- the prevailing narrative event for 10 years prior to my transplant had been AIDS. AIDS was the context of everything.
EDGE: What did you discover about how others view illness and people who are ill?
Richard McCann: I suspect I already knew that people were afraid of those who were ill and wanted not to identify with them. But then I really knew! I also switched positions - I’d been a caregiver to more than a few people and suddenly, I was in need of care. I also learned how you can’t guess who will come forward: some of those whom you believe to be your nearest and dearest will withdraw; others whom you hadn’t even though of will come forward to help you. Some you will have guessed right. But it was an amazing experience to find that I was taken care of, that what the world provided was sufficient.
EDGE: What did it mean to you to have another person’s body part implanted into your own?
Richard McCann: It meant my sense of self had to expand.
EDGE: What do you mean by that?
Richard McCann: For a long time, I chose to know nothing about my donor, not even the things one is allowed to know by law: age, gender, manner of death. For me - a white man whose family is entirely of Irish descent - it was thrilling to experience myself perhaps as mixed. Was my liver male or female? Was it African? Asian? What? I was no longer a discrete biological unit, separate and inviolate. I was suddenly given a means of expanding my own sense of identity, a means that certainly included imagination but that also had its foundation in the literal. I often felt freed when I considered, however fancifully, that perhaps I not longer had a single or absolute ethnicity or gender.
Why ’The Resurrectionist?’
EDGE: You entitle your work The Resurrectionist - to what/whom does that term refer?
Richard McCann: "Resurrectionist" is a 19th-century slang term (chiefly British) for a grave robber. It’s my play on the idea of "resurrection" - my looking at the shadow side of that.
EDGE: What did you learn about the bio-medical establishment as you went through your personal process of illness and healing?
Richard McCann: HA! I learned you’d better damn well be prepared to be your own advocate, even should you lapse into unconsciousness.
EDGE: What role did spirituality play in your experiences and how - if at all - did it evolve?
Richard McCann: I grew up in a religious environment, for which I am grateful, even if I am no longer a believer in the faith in which I was raised. When I was sick, I often thought of G-d, in whose hands I felt placed, and I often missing thinking of G-d as personally as I did then. During that time, I learned how important it was to me also to have a private relationship to whomever or whatever I was conceiving of as "G-d," and I learned that relationship felt deeper if I didn’t spell it out too much or talk it about it much outside of my own feelings and imagination.
EDGE: How do you now define health?
Richard McCann: It’s not a word I use that much. "Health" and "unhealthy" are separate categories. I think about being able to do what I want when I want; I think about the quality of life. "Health" is not a discrete category, just as "life" is not separable from "death."
Readers in San Francisco can catch Richard McCann read from his work on October 8, 2010 at the San Francisco LGBT Center, Ceremonial Room, 1800 Market Street. His one-night-only talk will begin at 7:30PM and feature commentary from liver pathologist, Dr. Neil Theise. Tickets range from $10 to $20 and can be purchased online at http://www.sfzc.org/expertsmind/richard-mccann-neil-theise/.