Book Review: My Soul is Among Lions

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Publication Date: 
Thu, 2014-06-26


My Soul is Among Lions by Ellen Leopold, Valley Green Press, 2014

Review by Abby Lippman

Ellen Leopold is a longstanding breast cancer activist who has written extensively—essays as well as a groundbreaking book, A Darker Ribbon: Breast cancer, Women, and Their Doctors in the Twentieth Century (Diane Pub Co, 1999)—on the topic. In her recent book, My Soul Is Among Lions, she offers readers a series of her past essays from 1996 to 2012—most from the earlier years—that touch on what she calls the "backstories" of the disease, adding several brief updates to make some entries more current.

The book begins with a memoir by Katharine Lee Bates describing the illness and death in 1915 of her "life companion," Katharine Coman, with Leopold providing her own words to contextualize this memoir. These two entries comprise just under half the book, with the other eight chapters all much shorter. They range across a wide set of issues, beginning with the pioneering (and mostly unrecognized) epidemiological work by Janet Elizabeth Lane-Claypon (whom I remember discussing in a talk I gave about a decade ago that drew on some of the same resources as has Leopold in her essay reprinted here). The range of issues continues through the development of prostheses for women who had had mastectomies designed Ruth Handler, the woman who brought Mattel’s Barbie doll to the world; the huge growth in the number of published breast cancer stories and memoirs by women living with the diagnosis; changes in the presentation of women who died from breast cancer in published obituaries about them; and the profitable philanthropy, often seen in "shop for the pink" campaigns, races, and walks, that engulfs us today.

Some of the topics covered here were first brought to attention in magazines not always widely read (then or now), such as the US-based Breast Cancer Action Newsletter, Women’s Review of Books, and The American Prospect. Moreover, some of the topics, especially the more political ones, have been dealt with in depth and eloquently in other books over the years, e.g., Sharon Batt's, Patient No More: The Politics of Breast Cancer (Gynergy/Ragweed Press, 1994); Samantha King's Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy (U of Minnesota Press, 2008). Nevertheless, having Leopold's essays in this one collection is of historical value.

Importantly, many of these articles serve as reminders of how so little has really changed over time (except the increasing number and visibility of women being diagnosed with breast cancer) and how much more needs to be done to truly prevent breast cancer through active applications of the precautionary principle. Reading the essays underscores the need for political activism to ensure carcinogenic materials that infest too many of our household and personal care products are eliminated by those companies producing them.  

Abby Lippman is a longtime feminist activist with special interests in women's health and women's health policies. Also an academic based at McGill and Concordia Universities and passionate about writing, Abby is past president of the CWHN, and is now on the boards of the FQPN and Centre for Gender Advocacy where she works in solidarity to build an inclusive reproductive justice movement in Québec.