By Jessica Steinert, Helen Nguyen, Heather Nguyen, and Hoang Phuong Vy Nguyen
Brandy Liên Worrall’s What Doesn't Kill Us chronicles her battle with a rare breast cancer and how it exposed the lasting trauma that psychologically and physically haunts her family, after the Vietnam War. Through her story, Worrall weaves in the themes of suffering and survival endured by both her parents and Agent-Orange-related cancer survivors like her. She draws parallels between their stories, by exploring the topic of chemical warfare during the Vietnam War and its enduring legacy on three generations, through her parents’ exposure to Agent Orange, her childhood epilepsy and unforeseen cancer, and the potential repercussions for her children.
Diving right in at the book’s beginning, Brandy investigates the “suffering and uncertainty” that surrounds her family, within the context of her breast cancer diagnosis. She recalls coming across an intersection during a race in Canada and not knowing which direction to take--just “standing at the divide between then--and--now” (Worrall 29). This feeling of losing control and inability to return to the past mirrors her mother’s, when her mother settled in Pennsylvania, and the “atmosphere became so foreign,” causing her to long for Vietnam (29). Like Brandy, her mother deals with her own “divide,” between her life before the war and the life she has to accept now.
The first connection Brandy makes to chemical warfare is when she dreams about the “horror" her father experienced during the Vietnam War--seeing his friends get shot, children dying, flesh in bright display (63). However, most of these dreams mirror the consequences of Agent Orange: a “bright orange-red aura with the smell of singed skin,” the “blood orange sky, struck with terror,” and the “smell [of] people burning alive” (63-64). These images resurface as she undergoes chemotherapy; she describes how the chemical taste and smell were “biting" the inside of her mouth, nose, and throat, making her wonder if “Mom and Dad had the same assault on their senses when they breathed in the Agent Orange that was so casually dropped from planes flying overhead” (64). She is also told that there is “nothing to worry about,” because the chemicals used in chemo are harmless, but unlike her parents, their “harmless--nothing to worry about” chemical is “nothing” but a transgenerational inheritance of health issues, resulting in the suffering and uncertain dread that Brandy continuously faces in her book (64).
Image 1: Spraying Agent Orange defoliant on land
As Brandy fights breast cancer, other problems arise, many of which had been lurking under the surface for a long time, only to be brought to the surface by her increasing stress and pain. They include her struggles with chemotherapy, her growing disconnection with her husband Charles, her “Crazy Asian Mother” (CAM) becoming even more unbearably overprotective and critical, and her depression from losing her sense of self and the life she had. She gradually notices how her experiences intertwine with those of her family. For instance, as one of the side effects of chemotherapy, she develops acne all over her body, which prompts a memory of her Vietnamese immigrant cousin, Lung. Like Brandy, he is half-White, but has a much different story from hers: growing up, Lung was often whipped for being a “bụi đời”— an Amerasian child of a Vietnamese mother and a military/civilian father from the U.S.—and had severe chloracne due to Agent Orange. While she reflects on the different courses of their lives, she starts to realize that their veins share the same deleterious chemical.
Although Brandy has differences with her mother, the cancer unexpectedly draws them closer together as she learns more about their parallel histories. On her blog, “cancerfuckingsucks,” Brandy maintains humor and boldness, but in private she often feels sad and isolated. The theme of sadness and isolation due to loss becomes more evident and profound when she looks over old photographs of Mom and Bà Ngoại (grandmother). In hopes of a better life, Mom had to leave her mother and young son, Hieu, behind in war-ridden Vietnam and move to an unfamiliar land. With her daughter gone, Bà Ngoại was alone and overcome with grief to the point that she decided to end her life. Even though all three family members have experienced loss in different ways, this shared feeling allows them to reconnect with one another. Stories of broken families like these demonstrate the common and unspoken, post-war hardships endured across Southeast Asian generations.
Along with the themes of loss and isolation, the book also explores the enduring legacy of Agent Orange. Breast cancer was not Brandy’s first interaction with the chemical; at a young age, she had epilepsy, which her mother believed was a punishment from the gods for abandoning her loved ones. Her mother also had her own share of health problems, including several miscarriages—a common health complication among victims of Agent Orange—until giving birth to Brandy. Not only has her mother lived with the guilt of leaving home, the dioxin created personal health problems and left tangible, long-term impacts and reminders of the war, through Brandy.
As she grows closer to her mother, Brandy also develops a better understanding of her father by exploring his own experiences with the Vietnam War. She had always before viewed him as a substance-loving veteran, but she comes to realize that his addictions cover up his deeper problems. After visiting the VA hospital, her father displays a certificate in the family room. It lists a series of statements that reflect the state of war during his service in Vietnam vs in the U.S., such as, “for you it was the news; for me it was reality” (131). Comparing her wall of academic achievements to his wall of military service recognitions, Brandy reiterates the message that violence of war affects more than just the body; it pains the mind and soul, and war-related incidents can never be forgotten. Her father’s trauma is etched in his memory, and as a result, he abuses drugs to numb himself. For years, she watched her father suffer from PTSD without understanding why. However, through her own experience of loss and war-related health effects, Brandy develops a better grasp of her father’s history and is able to make sense of his life after the war.
At this point of the novel, I acknowledged that Agent Orange plays a significant role in the lives of many war-affected individuals, but it is not often discussed outside Southeast Asian communities. How would the outcomes of Brandy and her family been different if Agent Orange were part of a bigger discussion in our society and/or if the U.S. and Vietnamese governments, hospitals, legal systems, and other social institutions dealt with the health consequences?
Wrestling with her cancer-related fears and her family’s past, Brandy uses the word limpky, or “sickness inside,” to stand for more than just her cancer, but also her frustrations with her parents, husband, and herself (156). She feels a need to say goodbye to her breasts, because she is relinquishing a part of her life. To commemorate her breasts, she makes thirty plaster casts and throws a cast-decorating party, to raise money for the Canadian Cancer Society and Friends for Life. As I read this part of the book, I was surprised by her desire to have a party. Despite her anger, frustration, and hatred toward her cancer and family, she is still able to celebrate. She discusses how cancer can be so lonely, but I was impressed by her strength to not give into that loneliness and be able to find at least a moment of happiness.
Image 2: Bringing friends and family together around a divisive disease
However, as Brandy heals from her surgery, she delves into her father’s PTSD and experiences in rehab. With no apparent improvement, her father has reached the point where his bad health has become an accepted truth, and no one cares anymore. Perhaps for the first time, Brandy empathizes with his loneliness and helplessness, realizing that she is not alone in her feelings of isolation. Therefore, she draws parallels between how cancer has victimized her and how the Vietnam War has victimized her father, enabling her to empathize with him.
Her marriage becomes another casualty. Already struggling with fear, pain, and uncertainty, Brandy is overwhelmed by her husband’s infidelity. One of the book’s most powerful moments is when she gazes at the water spilled all over the table and watches it drip away. She feels as if her life is spilling everywhere and out of control. Her heartbreak is clear when she states, “there is no chemo, radiation, or surgery for this pain. I can’t shake it. I can’t clean up this mess” (241). She cannot stand alone.
As Charles and Brandy undergo their divorce process, she fears that she can never be intimate with anyone again, feeling that he has thrown her away and seen her as “a freak,” because of her scarred body (243). Her physical scars mirror her emotional ones. At the same time, she acknowledges that an “enormous sense of helplessness” and deep “pain and suffering” drove her and her husband apart; she continues to empathize with him, but she tries to face these feelings alone, leading to her suicide attempt (247). She is confronted with another family legacy, having “inherited this curse, this diseased life,” manifested by her brother Hieu and Bà Ngoại also allegedly committing suicide and her father’s recent manic episode (247). Far from helping Brandy’s health, but coping in her own way, her mother blames Brandy for jeopardizing the health of the elders and the children, who need the second generation to be intact for their support. At this point, Brandy alone makes up the second generation for her family. They are fragmented and she has faced her own near-death experiences, and yet, they need her, despite her initial denial, in order to survive.
Beginning her “rebirth,” Brandy reclaims her self-confidence through new clothes, learning to love her new body and counteracting her previous negativity towards her scars. She decides that “it’s time to stop being the victim,” for her children’s sake (269).
Brandy finds healing in her relationship and eventual marriage with Anton, who understands her helplessness within her own body, her isolation, and her broken love, in his own struggle with a meth addiction and journey towards sobriety. He respects her scars, rather than be repulsed by them, like Charles was. They choose to have children together, aware of the intergenerational “curse” that Agent Orange has cast on their family, which claims their first son Veo, due to a fatal birth defect common for Agent Orange grandchildren. His death reminds Brandy of Matthew, who was also a potential casualty, demonstrating how each stillborn or deformed baby claimed by Agent Orange has a life--dreamed by their parents and later by their surviving siblings, who hold onto what could have been. Brandy and her family find hope in how her parents tried again, after Matthew’s death, resulting in Brandy being born. Brandy and Anton have Moxie Olivéa, her name being a blend of their cultures and names from their families, proving that there is indeed life after death and that the life that persists is rooted in those who have passed.
Reading this part of the book reminds me of my own father, the youngest of eleven children, and how he was born with a leg much smaller than the other. I recently discovered that he had a stillborn younger brother. I first assumed that this may have been caused by him being my Bà Ngoại’s twelfth birth, but I now wonder if my father’s smaller leg and his younger brother’s death are related to Agent Orange. How has Agent Orange affected my own family, and why hasn’t it been talked about before? Is there shame in being victims? I gain hope from Brandy’s strength and tenacity to survive despite the hurt, the deaths, and the odds.
Brandy concludes her memoir, by contemplating how although her parents “passed [their pain] onto [her], psychologically, medically, and emotionally,” they have also given her many blessings (342). This quote sticks with me, capturing the beautiful imperfection and survivor’s spirit of her and her family: “I learned from them what they have a hard time learning themselves: how to laugh...at everything, because really, how great, how fucked up, how wonderful and how incredible is this life we get to live” (342). She also voices her last and perhaps, most profound, parallel between surviving cancer and surviving war: “You don’t know how you will change, how you will come back, or even if you will come back...But you do know that if you survive, you will never think of life the same way again” (345). Brandy ends her memoir with the sensation of life persisting and the refusal to forget her memories with her family and her roots to Vietnam, both painful and beautiful.
Image 3: Three generations of survivors
Worrall, Brandy Liên. What Doesn't Kill Us. N.p.: Rabbit Fool, 2014. Print.
- Hynes, H. Patricia. Chemical Warfare and Agent Orange. Digital image. Pentagon Pollution, Part 3. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.
- Worrall, Brandy Liên. Peeps Decorating My Boobie Casts. Digital image. Snapshots. N.p., Apr. 2008. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.
- Worrall, Brandy Liên. One Big Happy Family!. Digital image. Snapshots. N.p., Apr. 2008. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.