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When Meredith Norton was thirty-four years old, she found herself living in Paris, France, with her husband Thibault and eleven-month-old son Lucas. She was enjoying an urbane—though at times befuddling—existence as an American abroad and, for the first time ever, she had the stability of a permanent address and the responsibilities of motherhood—if not the satisfaction of an inspiring career. When she first noticed some odd physical symptoms, she blamed them on hypochondria and anxiety, side effects of living in a foreign country. But over time, her hardened breast and an angry rash seemed to warrant more attention.
After a series of consultations with less-than-sympathetic French doctors, she returned to her native California and visited a doctor there at her mother’s insistence. The doctor promptly informed her that she had Stage 3 inflammatory breast cancer with a 40 percent chance of survival. Her vacation hijacked by medical crisis, Norton had no choice but to remain in the United States and start tackling the cancer immediately. The responsible adult life she’d settled into was, for the time being, left behind with the chic French furniture and pumpkin soufflé recipes.
Reunited with quirky family members and fiercely loyal friends, Norton began her recommended treatment: an aggressive course of chemotherapy, then a mastectomy, followed by radiation and more chemotherapy. Throughout her nearly two-year ordeal, Norton agonized over the possibility of leaving her husband and son behind and worried that she hadn’t lived up to her accomplished, affluent parents’ expectations. The worst part of all was the growing realization that, should the treatment fail to kill her cancer, the idea that she wouldn’t have to “do something with her life” gave Norton an almost shameful sense of relief.
In her hilarious and poignant debut, Norton explores the stark realities of cancer, the flaws in the American health-care system, and the brutal treatments that leave her half-blind, one-breasted, and pulling sheets of skin from her feet. Along the way she recounts some of the most memorable episodes of her young but well-lived life, from a treehouse roommate who practices taxidermy on household mice to a family reunion on an alligator farm and a horrifying visit to a Moroccan dentist. Norton’s unsentimental wit and razor-sharp insights about human nature make Lopsided an unusual treasure among cancer memoirs. Unlike Lance Armstrong, Norton doesn’t find her noblest, most dignified instincts in sickness, but surviving cancer with her sense of humor and zest for experience intact is, in itself, a triumph.
Meredith Norton was born in Berkeley, California. She attended Columbia College, majoring in English. She has traveled extensively and resided for several years in Europe. Her occupations have included Native American grant processor, hymnal editor, documentary filmmaker, art restorer, game show producer, Hollywood agent assistant, teacher, and corporate CEO. She currently lives with her son in Sonoma County, California.
Q. Early on in your diagnosis you mention your dread when encountering cancer survivors who want you to curse and “stamp out” the disease. Has your response to this type of behavior changed at all after writing this book?
In all honesty, other survivors don’t treat me as inclusively now as they did when I was in early treatment and had obvious side effects such as baldness. I rarely, if ever, have to deal with those sorts of uncomfortable situations anymore. But if someone were to approach me I would probably react in the exact same way as before. I’d play along and feel really stupid all the while.
Q. You talk about Lance Armstrong’s memoir and how it was not entirely inspirational for you to read about a world-class athlete attacking cancer with the same relentless, overachieving drive he used to win the Tour de France. What were your goals in writing this book and what did you hope to express that wasn’t in existing cancer memoirs?
My goal was simply to tell my story and let people know that my situation wasn’t tragic. And even if it was tragic, it didn’t warrant the funereal looks I was getting. I wanted people to understand that I could have cancer and a baby and still be okay, still be myself. Having cancer hadn’t made me start writing sappy poetry or collecting Anne Geddes artwork or doing anything I wouldn’t have been caught dead doing before I was diagnosed. The idea of filling a literary void was the furthest thing from my mind. The fact is that before my own diagnosis I’d never read a single cancer memoir. Even now, five years later, I’ve probably read less than a handful. My process was entirely non-strategic and self-indulgent. Writing about my experience simply felt really good.
Q. In the early chapters of the book you recount your time living in Paris and through your various descriptions of small-minded people, incompetent doctors, and overwhelming bureaucracy, you firmly debunk any romantic notions your American readers might have of the city. Was this your intention? Do you ever miss living there?
Yes, it was my intention, and no, I do not miss living there. I do miss eating duck all the time, and having paté and bread to snack on instead of the garbage I eat here in America. But it isn’t as though we don’t have ducks or bread or paté here, so if it were really important to me I’d make it part of my life now.
Q. Some readers have compared your writing, with its irreverent observations and witty anecdotes about living as an expatriate in France, to the work of humorist David Sedaris. What do you make of this comparison?
I love this comparison. David Sedaris is one of my favorite authors. Comparing me to him is one of the quickest ways to prepare readers for my book. If you don’t get Sedaris, you’ll probably just be insulted by about 90 percent of what I write.
Q. The book touches on your identity as an African American woman, the racism you encounter both abroad and in your childhood in the United States, and somewhat obliquely, your thoughts about your son as the product of a mixed marriage. Was it a challenge to honestly (and humorously) write about race?
How else would I write it? Who would I be trying to protect by being dishonest? Racism is the stupidest thing in the world. I think we are at a point where we need to stop shaking our heads and start laughing at ignorant people and their ignorant behavior. I want to live in a world where some man makes an inappropriately racist comment and we all point and laugh as though he just walked into a sliding glass door and a whole tray of hot dogs with mustard got smashed all over his shirt. Our laughter should be slightly cruel, and he should feel thoroughly foolish and embarrassed. But this only works if we all laugh at transgressors all the time.
Q. You seem to be especially aware of the way cancer impacts people around you, as when you state that wearing a wig to cover up chemotherapy baldness is actually a gesture to make other people feel better. Do you think having that awareness of the way others reacted was useful or burdensome during your treatment?
Being aware of the people around you is the easiest way to protect yourself from harm. You learn who to avoid, who to cling to, what to share, what not to share. But it is also exhausting to be hypervigilant. Sometimes I wish I could just ignore my surroundings, my impact, and the insults. A less observant person would have missed 90 percent of the things I found offensive. (I guess a 90 percent less observant person would have.)
Q. Throughout the book you detail quite a bit of living for thirty-four years—traveling all around the world, working at various professions, having many romantic relationships, studying a diverse array of subjects from the liberal arts to the sciences. How did these varied experiences inform your ability to cope with the disease?
I am amazed by the people who pity themselves and the people who do not. Even with cancer and no savings account I am more privileged than the majority of human beings on the planet. Even through my worst periods of treatment I had excellent insurance coverage and a whole network of family and friends who would rally around me to get me whatever I needed. All I had to worry about were my appointments and my son’s happiness, not his physical or economic well-being, just his emotional stability. Having cancer has been downright luxurious. I think that people who do not travel, or who live life without leaving what is familiar, simply cannot understand the spectrum of human experience. I’d feel like an idiot falling apart over my smooth, tidy, chemo baldness after I saw a Guatemalan woman weeping over her baby’s scalp, bald from an absolute invasion of ringworm. Perspective helps me cope.
Q. You write, “It is my firm belief that adversity only strips the insulation from the foundation. If the foundation is weak, corrupt or solid, its nature is simply revealed” (p. 151). What did cancer reveal about your own foundation?
My foundation is great and I can’t credit anybody but my parents for that. They did everything they were supposed to do to make me a confident and competent person. I’m much prouder of who I am than of what I have done with it. The one exception to that might be my son, Lucas.
Q. In a painful moment in the book you tell of the realization that you would need another round of treatment—this after you’ve just finished celebrating at the Meredith Kills Cancer Dead party your friends have thrown you. You give your readers a glimpse here of how lonely the fight against cancer can be. How did you manage to keep your resolve and strength at this point?
What was I going to do? Lucas wasn’t even two years old yet. I think what I did was decide to make it a more immediately private activity and avoid managing the circus that came with sharing. But once I got going again it was simply easier to do it gracefully rather than begrudgingly. Feeling crappy feels crappy. I couldn’t waste energy on that. But believe me, I had a hard week or two adjusting to the new plan.
Q. It would seem that the writing and publishing of Lopsided finally gave your quest for achievement some resolution. Do you view yourself as a career writer and if so, what will you write about next?
I cannot explain the impact of this book on my life. Even though my skin looks great and I still fit into the clothes I wore at eighteen, I couldn’t have gone to my high school or college reunions without Lopsided. I’m a good person, but I really felt unsuccessful, and more disappointing, like I hadn’t contributed to society in a meaningful way. Now I have an answer to the question what do you do for a living? And I actually get mail from people thanking me for helping them or their loved ones through one of the most difficult periods of their lives. It is profoundly satisfying.
I would like to be a career writer. Writing suits me in a way that none of my other jobs has. I am currently working on a collection of personal essays and a memoir about Israel and Palestine and a fictionalized account of the last day of my life.
- Norton often uses hyperbole in her writing. What are some examples of this and how does it add to or enhance the narrative?
- From the outset, Lopsided is a very different kind of cancer memoir. In what ways does Norton subvert or completely reject stereotypes of the typical cancer story?
- Norton discusses race several times in this book, particularly in a few incidents where she encounters bigoted people. How would you describe her attitude toward her own racial identity?
- When Norton is waiting for her dad to pick her up from the hospital she sees a mime and she realizes that “lost or not we are always in character. We are what we are” (p.33). How was this insight important for Norton and how is it true of Norton herself?
- At one point Norton reflects that her husband loves her as unconditionally as a parent would: “His ability to let me live in a world of fanciful perceptions and my own interpretations is exactly what I needed in a husband—a partner in life determined not to burst my bubble” (p. 98). How does Thibault support Norton through her ordeal and how does his kind of love help her survive?
- When a therapist tells Norton that children orphaned before the age of eight can’t remember anything about their parents, she describes it as the worst thing anybody has ever said to her. Yet she refuses to take his advice and make a tape for her son. Why?
- In the hospital, Norton encounters a “bad bride” (p.155) patient who seems to be reveling in her sickness and playing it for sympathy. Why does this disgust Norton and how is her way of coping different from the “bad bride’s”?
- What are Norton’s concerns about getting a surgical mastectomy and how does she make her final decision?
- Norton’s friend Rebecca complains about her lack of emotion, but Norton has several moments over the course of her illness where she breaks down. At which points do you think she feel the most powerful sense of loss, grief or fear? How did these moments affect you as a reader?
- At the end of the book Norton ruminates on the disappointment she and Thibault feel when the cancer retreats and they haven’t gained anything from the experience, she hasn’t “learned anything” (p. 207). Do you agree with her?