Book Review: naked imperfection

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Publication Date: 
Thu, 2014-06-26


naked imperfection: a memoir by Gillian Deacon, Penguin Canada, 2014

Review by Suzanne Elston

naked imperfection covernaked imperfection: a memoir, is smart, arrogant and heartbreakingly funny. It chronicles Gillian Deacon’s descent into the terrifying world of cancer through a series of family stories, personal reflections and experiences as a breast cancer patient.

Deacon is best known as an award-winning environmental writer and broadcaster. She is the author of the bestsellers There’s Lead in Your Lipstick (Penguin Canada, 2010) and Green for Life (Penguin Canada, 2008)—handbooks for a healthier, greener planet.

This latest book is a big departure from her previous works. Deacon’s foray into a more literary style of writing is a brilliant, yet sometimes annoying, read (for reasons explained below). Deacon describes her early life as a first-born over-achiever who never really gets over herself. The self-appointed eco-warrior and seemingly perfect wife and mother is suddenly stopped in her tracks—if only momentarily—with a diagnosis of breast cancer. Deacon’s reaction is to become the best cancer patient ever.

She trades her already healthy vegetarian diet for an extreme raw food regime that has her dicing, juicing and downing a cacophony of veggies while waiting for her mastectomy. Post surgery, Deacon continues to be annoyingly optimistic:

“I was acing cancer—incorporating its inconvenience into my plans and continuing along my way,” she writes.

“Witty, upbeat email missives to friends and family? Check. Strict cancer-fighting food regimen? Check. Regular physio exercises to regain mobility? Check. Alternative healing protocols? Sure, why not. Wired for accomplishment, I had nailed the beast and hung its head on my front door.”

It’s at this point that Deacon runs into a “glitch” as her surgeon describes it. Despite the post-operative optimism of “clear margins, contained tumour,” exhaustive pathology determines that three tiny cancer cells managed to escape Deacon’s breast tissue area and have made their way into her lymphatic system.

What follows is a poetic, raw and beautifully crafted literary journey. Deacon writes with anger and grace. Carefully placed obscenities punctuate the magical transformation that follows. Faced with the very real possibility of losing her life, Deacon gives up her desire to control the world and in doing so, finds an extraordinary humanity.

“Clearly, the illusion of control was a sweet narcotic for me. I believed that I could apply the principles of order as an inoculation against suffering: Eat all the right things. Avoid all the wrong chemicals. Wash your hands neat as a pin. Keep me, my family, and our world safe from harm.”

In the process, Deacon initially tears her former life and beliefs into microscopic pieces and then examines them with surgical precision. Unwavering throughout the process is her deep and abiding love of her family and friends who have rallied around to help her.

In the end, Deacon emerges as a kinder and gentler person, who is more focused on the now. Her recipe for survival:

“Living with gratitude and extracting every ounce of joy and satisfaction in any given day is a way to extend the time that we have. Not planning for tomorrow, making lists of things to do. Be a human being, not a human doing.” (My emphasis.)

“Someone once told me cancer is a gift but it comes wrapped in barbed wire,” she writes. “You have to go through a lot of pain and excruciating effort to unwrap it before it can reveal its value. But once it has been opened, it is unparalleled treasure.”

The same can be said of Deacon’s book.

Suzanne Elston is the Senior Environmental Coordinator for the City of Oshawa (Ontario) and a dedicated writer and environmentalist.