In writing about her surgery, Jolie looks shame right in the face and refuses it: for herself, for other women, for me. I thank her for that.
Once I visited a friend in Alaska, the kind of woman who camps in the snow in a tent with a woodstove. She surprised me by insisting we go see the latest installment in the Tomb Raider film series. “Angelina Jolie is a badass,” she told me. And she was, playing the heroine Lara Croft with impressive curves and villain-crushing prowess. But after Monday, I know that Jolie really is a badass, with the true guts and strength the term implies.
Two summers ago I had surgery to remove all of my reproductive organs—my uterus, fallopian tubes, cervix, and ovaries. It was a surgery I’d tried to avoid, despite sometimes crippling pain and unsuccessful interventions of dietary changes and medication. It wasn’t until a grapefruit-sized mass engulfed one of my ovaries and I sat before a reproductive oncologist that I finally accepted that I needed to have the procedure.
I was about to turn 45. I had never had children. I would be thrown into instant and irrevocable menopause.
I spoke with few people about my surgery and its consequences. Only my family and inner circle knew. To most, I was vague about my need to step out of my daily activities for a month. I posted nothing on Facebook, despite being a fairly active user. To my male supervisor—a kind and compassionate man—I said simply that there was a growth and the doctors said it needed to come out. He nodded. I nodded. And he told me to take all the time I needed.
Before reading Jolie’s op-ed in The New York Times about her decision to remove her ovaries through preventative surgery, I would have told you I was quiet about my decision because I am a private person and our health is personal. I am, and it is. But would I have done the same if it were my appendix being removed? If, like a friend of mine, I had a dangerous malignancy on my foot? If my heart valve needed repair?
I don’t think so.
In truth, I associated this reproductive surgery with my “private parts,” the things we are taught not to talk about except in hushed tones. Even more, I associated it with a core element of my identity as a woman. Losing my uterus and ovaries seemed to me a failure, proof of some way in which I hadn’t measured up. I felt ashamed.
In writing about her experience, Jolie looks that shame right in the face and refuses it: for herself, for other women, for me. I thank her for that. She calls her medical procedure what it was: “a laparoscopic bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy.” She calls menopause what it is: “a part of life…nothing to be feared.” She calls herself feminine, grounded.
As a woman facing the prospect of such a life-altering surgery, I was hungry for such candor.
I found my support in the online forum of a website called HysterSisters, where women facing hysterectomy and other reproductive surgeries come together to share their experiences. There I found women expressing the same fears that kept me up at night. Will this early menopause make me suddenly old? What will happen to my sex life? Who will I be on the other side of this experience?
This resource is critically important; however, it is also anonymous. Women speak openly, but under the cover of user names created with their initials or dates or pet names or locales. What if we came out from behind that cover? What if I’d been able to ask my questions of women at my office, or in my neighborhood? In the U.S., hundreds of thousands of women have reproductive surgeries each year. That means that we are many. We can speak.
Jolie’s op-ed was moving to me because of my personal experience. Though I don’t share her family history of cancer or carry a mutation in the BRCA1 gene, I can relate to her story. I know the odd clarity a frightening test result brings. I know the relief of getting news of benign tissues. I know the clear estrogen patches that now help replace her hormones.
But the reason I read her piece over and over again and walked around all day with it echoing in my head was because of her bravery. Not the bravery of having the surgery, but the bravery of talking about it. She shows me and anyone who has gone through a similar experience the power and necessity of telling our stories.
No one is more famous than Angelina Jolie, and she’s put that celebrity to good use. She’s given voice and dignity to women facing difficult, sometimes wrenching, decisions. By doing so, the next woman facing a mutation in her genes or a grapefruit-sized mass or a painful medical challenge may know she’s not alone. She may feel less shame and more strength. She may trust her ability to make the right choices for herself.
If that’s not a badass, I don’t know what is.
Vivé Griffith lives in Austin, Texas, where she directs Free Minds, a program offering free college humanities classes to adults. Most of her students are women with children.