Last Friday, September 20, UC Davis English professor and associate dean Elizabeth Freeman delivered a moving talk on caretaking, rereading, and queer theory. After an introduction by Carleton Women and Gender Studies professor Candace Moore amid the sounds of attendees crunching pizza and cracking pop cans, Freeman began, working from material borrowed from the book she is currently writing.
Caretaking, a task often carried out by gender minorities, can be linked by its feminized nature to non-hermeneutic reading, or reading without interpretive drive—such as reading intermittently, reading to children, and even reader’s block. But Freeman focused rather on rereading, a form of non-hermeneutic reading feminized by its nature as a repetitive task often scorned as meaningless. Freeman explained the link between rereading and caretaking, particularly of someone terminally ill, through the lens of her own experience caring for her dying mother several years ago.
For months, Freeman spent each day with her bedridden mom, completing the same series of tasks over and over despite knowing that no matter the quality of the care, this illness could end only one way. And in down time spent waiting, unable to focus meaningfully on much of anything beyond her mother, she read one book repeatedly: Anna Quindlen’s One True Thing. Besides the relevance of the book, a story about a daughter caring for her dying mother, One True Thing became significant to Freeman through its sentimentality, and through the comfort reading and rereading its emotional passages provided. Like her mother’s illness, Freeman knew the ending of the book already; like caring for a terminally ill person, rereading it was ultimately pointless, delaying an inevitable ending. But despite this inevitability, both rereading and caretaking sustained Freeman through her mother’s illness, allowing her an outlet for her building grief.
Aside from providing emotional preoccupation, the intersection between caretaking and sentimental fiction is characterized by compression: the slow crushing inward of inescapable emotions. Sentimental fiction seeks this feeling, preventing readers from escaping the overwrought tragedy it describes, and caretaking unfortunately embodies this compression as well, holding the caretaker under the pall of the patient’s coming death.
Freeman’s work with caretaking and rereading, however, has a bigger significance to her than informing her experience with these two compressed, sentimental tasks. Her goal is to work toward getting queer theory out from under the thumb of transgression, newness, and especially Lee Edelman’s death drive theory. Freeman argues that just as the act of rereading of sentimental fiction can create a social fabric for gender minorities, caretaking can lead to the interconnectedness of a community; a prime example of this interconnectedness, she believes, is Susan Sontag’s short story “The Way We Live Now,” set during the AIDS crisis. Sontag describes a time in queer history in which a caretaker tended not only to an ill patient, but also to the patient’s network of concerned friends and acquaintances, each of whom took every update on their friend’s condition and passed the news on, creating an almost endless chain of “he said that she said that they said that he’s been rapidly losing weight,” etc.
In the book she is currently working on, Freeman hopes to use both her personal experience and evidence such as Sontag’s brilliant short story to draw queer theory away from the negativity of being othered and toward the truth of the queer community: that it is embodied not by the transgressions of homosexuality or the so-called tragedy of childlessness, but by commitment.