Caitlin Kuehn

"Of Mothers and Monkeys"

Winner of the Felice Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction, 2017
Selected by Ariel Levy
Read the essay here


“Of Mothers and Monkeys” draws such interesting parallels between your work with animals and dealing with your mother's illness. Was this connection always apparent?

In the beginning, during all that speed-walking through the halls between Lab Animal Resources and The Cancer Center (which is actually what we called the oncology department, both colloquially and formally written on the walls outside)—no, I did not notice all of the heavy parallels. I would like to think I am astute enough to notice and analyze patterns as they are happening, but mostly I just lived them because that was what I had to do. My mother was sick. I had a job. I took care of it as best I could.

The mirroring of experiences did manifest during that moment I describe in the piece when I gave my mother a subcutaneous injection. There was a certain muscle memory of pinching skin and plunging needle that triggered a strange recognition of my existence—as a person traversing along the multitude of spaces formed by bodies, by science, disease, healing, discomfort, death, and humanity. But I did not consciously reflect on it much beyond that. It was only after I had left the lab and my mother had finished her treatment course, as I began sharing the various anecdotes in casual conversation, that the threads became visible. It is infinitely fascinating how there is something in the telling of story, of that act, that both acknowledges and creates the narrative itself. I suppose this is why many of us are so drawn to writing as an art.

This piece is deeply personal. What did you find was your greatest challenge in writing it?

While there was a plethora of little challenges along the way, I’d say the primary concern of mine was presenting people and concepts at large in a respectful manner, but while still acknowledging that the realities of illness and animal research are messy. This is not just in the literal sense of anaphylactic shock, skin sores, surgery, dissection, blood and urine—but also on an ethical level. As much as I my tone or bluntness might create a distancing effect from such vulnerable and hot debate topics—I know these people, and I knew these animals. They are not fiction to me.

So I worried very much about how to navigate this. I did not want to write something that could hurt, upset, anger, or otherwise make squeamish, others—my mother, peers and supervisors in the lab included. But what I had to remember was that at work we made it a habit to give nicknames to many of the animals for a reason. By giving name to the monkey, or the cat, we would generate a connection and an empathy that let us be better and more humane as researchers. Or so the claims go. Creating words, or at least trying to, for the complexity of experience is a way to generate compassion. Even if the words are uncomfortable. As difficult as it was in the face of fears about what people may think of me, those I love, and my work—I needed to allow myself the space to honor the emotional truth for both them and myself.

Do you write both fiction and nonfiction? How has your experience studying medicine influenced your writing, especially in fictional pieces?

I do write both nonfiction and fiction. I would say my experience in medicine, or as a biology student and medical research assistant in general, has provided me with an immense curiosity for pattern finding and pattern making, even between seemingly unrelated things. This is rather apparent in “Of Mothers and Monkeys,” but much of my fiction writing too tends to link up and explore the myriads of ways experiences can manifest themselves and interrelate. For anyone who has ever studied any branch of science for more than five seconds, the biggest truths are:

  1. For every question answered, a million more evolve.
  2. Patterns abound in all that is observable (and likely all that is not yet observable) if you just zoom further into the microcosmos, or expand far enough out. And no discipline stands in isolation. Medicine is biology is chemistry is physics, sociology and politics. This is a very philosophical route to take, but this zooming in and out of topics to seek the patterns is the strongest tendency I have gathered from my medical background.

The other, though this is also heavily influenced by my interest in theater, performance, and disability studies, is my obsession with the concept of embodiment. I don’t think I’ve ever written a piece where there wasn’t a focus, be it in the language or theme, on the body. What the body does and what it doesn’t. The body as a lived-in thing interacting with other lived-in bodies in a particular space. I just find the body a remarkable, beautiful, joyful, painful, and terrifyingly confusing thing. I don’t think one can go through a whole semester dissecting a lovingly donated human cadaver—someone who once had a name and a life—without feeling that in your marrow.

Which writers have inspired you? What are you currently reading?

I find inspiration within a variety of literary forms. Graphic novelist and comic artist Alison Bechdel, feminist disability scholars Rosemarie Garland-Thomson and Petra Kuppers, the introductory chapter to Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology, the short story by Sherman Alexie I constantly keep returning to, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” this essay in Mask Magazine on “Sick Woman Theory” by Johanna Hedva. The playwright Tony Kushner gets at much of what I like to explore, finding patterns between the immensely grand, the political, the spiritual, fantastical—and the intensely personal, the embodied life. He is often wildly ambitious in a way I do not have the skills for, but writing is perpetually a work in progress and it is good to have goals that feel beyond you yet still. I could keep going as this is a never-ending list, but I do want to throw in a quick shout-out to the inspiration I get from my peers at City College, and to all those young writers out there who put their vulnerable teen selves on the line in blog posts, poetry, fanfiction, etc…Every day they are unashamedly doing what they love and reshaping the narratives around them into infinite possibilities.

Currently I am reading a book recommended by a friend, quite funny, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore. It’s a nice break from all the heavier texts I was reading during the school year. By the time this comes out though I will likely have moved on to Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is Not Abuse.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?

This is not so much writing advice directly, though it is a re-interpretation of Marx that did come in the author’s acknowledgments of, you guessed it, a play by Tony Kushner:

“The smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction.”

No person creates alone. One is allowed, and should allow themselves to be inspired by others, to consult with others, ask for help, etc… and to do the same in return. All art on one level is a collaboration of sorts between the parts that make it. All the little encouragements you get, the small practical advice about dialogue or being vulnerable in your writing, about cutting most of it and starting over. All those other works you read and discuss and probably overanalyze. What your sister baked for dessert that one night, or the kid dancing to their iPod on the subway in a way that made you want to capture something. Everything is connected, feeding in to the ecosystem.

Better writing comes from being grateful, acknowledging and embracing, even seeking out of this intimate communal aspect of the art.