Book Review: My Soul Is Among Lions

Leopold CoverEllen Leopold’s unique collection of essays over a 20-year period (many of them written before there was an audience ready to receive them) illustrates important shifts in the medical and social history of breast cancer. She skillfully threads her way through the writings of impactful women and the contexts in which they lived, chronicling the personal and social consequences of challenging the existing state of affairs — one that is now steeped in mass media and corporate interests.

Leopold begins with stories of Katharine Lee Bates, memoirist (1859-1929) and her partner Katharine Coman, economic historian (1857-1915); Janet Lane-Claypon, epidemiologist (1877-1967); Irma Natanson, plaintiff (1920-1989); and Ruth Handler, inventor (1916-2002); all agents of change in their own right. Their stories, coupled with the essay “Body Language” that analyzes such early iterations of the illness narrative, provide insight into the status of women vis-à-vis the medical system in the United States in the last century. “The Last Word” further reveals how breast cancer was represented in American culture, in this case in the simplified storyline of the obituary.

The second part of the book focuses on the more recent changes in the visibility of breast cancer, resulting from mass media and commercialization. “The Tyranny of Cheerfulness” explains the shift from “charity” to “business” and the corporate outlook of the most prominent breast cancer organizations. In “Shopping for the Cure” and “The Breast Cancer Donor’s Dilemma,” Leopold makes the case that while there are plenty of worthwhile nonprofits still out there, self-interest trumps philanthropic purpose for the vast majority. “The availability of a more streamlined model of fund-raising, shorn of its cause marketing, its overpaid executives, and its false promises,” she writes, “might be a godsend to committed donors who have grown disenchanted with the wasteful and often misleading tactics of pink-ribbon crusaders.”

My Soul is Among Lions not only adds to the historical record, it shows how countervailing voices have always been, and continue to be, at the center of meaningful change. ESSENTIAL READ.

My Soul is Among Lions: Pages from the Breast Cancer Archives by Ellen Leopold. Charleston, SC: Valley Green Press, 2014. 192pp. ISBN: 978-0989873703, $9.00 (paperback).

Gayle Sulik, Research Associate, University at Albany SUNY (Founder and Principal Investigator)

Gayle Sulik MA, PhD is a social science researcher affiliated with the University at Albany (SUNY) Department of Women’s Studies. With expertise in medical sociology and interdisciplinary community research, her scholarship has focused on medical consumerism, technology, cancer survivorship, health policy, and specifically the culture and industry of breast cancer. She is author of Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health (Oxford, 2011) as well numerous articles, essays, and book chapters on health and medicine. After serving as an assistant professor for six years, Dr. Sulik shifted her focus toward more public engagement. She received a highly competitive research fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2008 and is the 2013 Sociologists for Women in Society Distinguished Feminist Lecturerer. Dr. Sulik’s popular Pink Ribbon Blues Blog has had more than 550 thousand readers and many of her articles have been reprinted or translated for other outlets. She also writes for Psychology Today. Gayle Sulik is currently one of the most sought after discussants on breast cancer and women’s health in the United States.

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