Friday, June 21, 2024

More than a Monster: Medusa as a Mutation

An illustration of a snake with a woman's head, and accompanying text.For those of you who have visited Rauner to see the exhibit on display right now, “More than a Monster: Medusa Misunderstood,” you might now realize the nuance in Medusa’s myth and have sympathy for her tragic backstory: while many know her as the monster with snakes for hair, she was a woman raped, blamed, and weaponized. However, this Mindy Belloff artist's book adopts the “Monster Medusa,” only referenced as "the Gorgon," as a metaphor for her mother’s breast cancer.

In a way, Medusa in this monstrous metaphor makes sense in that the snakes in her hair are similar to the “fibrous mass” of the cancer: the line “snake hair multiplying” references the growing cancer cells. Belloff also calls Medusa an “insidious mutation,” which mirrors the cancerous cells’ mutative behavior.

An illustration of a woman's face with multiple eyes and accompanying text.
In addition, the author adopts Medusa’s paralyzing nature–a central aspect to Medusa’s myth–in this metaphor. In the beginning of the book, the author’s mother, the cancer victim, is also the Gorgon’s or Medusa’s victim. However, Belloff indicates a turn towards the middle of the book: “Yet it is I who becomes immobile / paralyzed by the mythic gaze / helpless to save her from this fate.” Both the cancer patient and her loved ones become victims to the Gorgon’s “paralyzing gaze,” speaking to the fact that all suffer in different ways when someone we love falls ill to such a frightening disease. Cancer seizes many as its victims.

On one hand, in these ways Medusa as the “mythical tormentor” in this story makes sense, but the author does not seem to root the metaphor much in myth beyond the serpentine imagery and the paralyzing nature of both Medusa and cancer. The author frequently refers to the cancer as “the Gorgon’s eye” in the singular yet the illustrator depicts the cancer with multiple eyes, morphing eyes and multiplying cancer cells as one. The artist even portrays Medusa with multiple eyes–a creature more reminiscent of the giant Argos (given the nickname “all-seeing” for his thousands of eyes) or even a mutated cyclops of some sort. So you may still be wondering: why does Belloff ultimately chose Medusa over thousands of mythological monsters? 

An illustration of an eye above a pile of breasts and eyes, with accompanying text.
Maybe it’s the familiarity of Medusa’s myth, or the fact that she started out human and becomes a mutated female, similar to how cancer slowly takes away one’s life. Maybe the author picked a female monster for a cancer that predominately impacts women. Regardless, this author certainly decided to embrace Medusa’s monstrous side in a powerful metaphor and story about her mother’s cancer.

Come into Rauner to view the Medusa exhibit on display in the Mezzanine until June 28th. To request Belloff’s book, ask for Presses I68bec

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