(When my review of Gilda Radner’s autobiography was first published in the Denver Post in 1989, my father was particularly moved, as he was in the process of undergoing cancer treatments. He knew from this writing I had reached a heightened level of understanding and compassion for not only himself, but for everyone who walks the difficult, and oftentimes lonely, path of cancer. My father knew in that moment I was walking alongside him.)
“It’s always something” was a favorite phrase of Gilda Radner’s father. It was also the phrase used by Gilda’s “Saturday Night Live” character Roseanne Roseannadanna. Appropriately, it is the title of Gilda Radner’s autobiography, written while she was battling ovarian cancer.
“Cancer,” Gilda had said, “is about the most unfunny thing in the world.” After reading this intimate, disturbingly raw and equally humorous book, one knows exactly what she meant.
No matter that we already know the ending to her story: death on May 20 at the age of 42. This book is an ongoing journey through the battlefields of cancer — a war she fought with her body, her doctors, her psyche and with those of The Wellness Community, people who shared the same fate of having such an unfunny disease.
Gilda attempts to reveal in chronological order her life, the onset of illness and the evolving process of the cancer treatments. Nonetheless, this story reads chaotically. She mixes events of her past, present and speculative future with a hurried pace, as though all too aware of a timer counting down her stay on Earth.
For example, she writes of a time of being a fat kid at summer camp, sneaking Tootsie Roll Pops in her bunk. Two short paragraphs later she jumps back to a time when her parents were looking for a live-in nurse when she was 4 months old.
She tells us that the woman who became her nanny, Dibby, stayed with the family for 18 years. Dibby was also the person Gilda modeled her character Emily Litella after. Gilda wrote, “Emily Litella was the spunky editorialist on ‘Weekend Update’ who got everything wrong but was emphatic about it until she found out she had misheard. ‘Never mind,’ Emily’s famous response, is straight from Dibby’s mouth.”
It is partly because of this frenzied, non-sequential delivery that she speaks so honestly to her audience. What one senses is the makings of a very intense personality, a composite of obsessions and excess energy which she so successfully directed into her comedy — and which she tried to apply toward healing her body of cancer.
Her book is a fine piece of stand-up comedy, riotously funny in parts, despite the fact that it is based on such a depressing truth. Cancer is not pretty. Gilda makes the terror of the disease palpable by walking us through her examinations, surgeries and chemotherapy treatments. Yet, she also saw her illness and subsequent fight for life as great material for a laugh. Some of it is truly the makings of a Roseanne Roseannadanna skit.
You’ll laugh out loud even when a deep part of you is dying inside for her, too.
Reading such painfully honest writing made me think I didn’t have the right to know all of these personal details about someone I only knew from watching “Saturday Night Live.” Her confessions of bulimia and anorexia, along with her admission that she hoped becoming pregnant would force Gene Wilder to marry her, burned my eyes.
But the book reads as though she’s sitting right there across from you, doing what she did best: telling an awfully funny story that was both truthful and shocking.
And now I know things about her, about cancer and about an inward journey of self-discovery that I will long remember. She wrote: “While we have the gift of life, it seems to me the only tragedy is to allow part of us to die — whether it is our spirit, our creativity or our glorious uniqueness.”
Never mind that she had to experience cancer to attain such wisdom.
— Giselle M. Massi © 1989