I don’t know if people are willing to admit it, but many of us, and I suspect especially those of us who write books, have given some thought to what our legacy will be. I know I have. Since I am childfree—a term I recently heard for the first time—I won’t be leaving any progeny to carry on the family name. But I will be leaving my books to inform future generations. Even if libraries purge their holdings to make way for newer volumes, I’m thinking (hoping) that some of my writings will survive on the dusty shelves, or at the very least, in Cyberspace. I know it won’t really matter to me after I’m gone, but right now, I find the thought comforting.
Perhaps that’s why I had such a visceral reaction to the Gilda’s Club brouhaha that erupted last week. For those who don’t know, Gilda’s Club is a community organization with more than 20 affiliates that is dedicated to offering support to people who are living with cancer, and their loved ones. It was founded in the 1990s in honor of Gilda Radner, one of the original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” on Saturday Night Live, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989. During her illness, Gilda found encouragement and solace at a California organization called the Wellness Community. Gilda’s Club was modeled after that group. (The name refers to Gilda’s quote that “having cancer gave me membership in an elite club I’d rather not belong to.”)
In 2009, Gilda’s Club Worldwide merged with the Wellness Community to create the Cancer Support Community. After the merger, the home office decreed that affiliates could determine which of three names worked best for them: Gilda’s Club, the Wellness Community, or the Cancer Support Community. A few weeks ago, the affiliate in Madison, Wisconsin, held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate its new name, the Cancer Support Community Southwest Wisconsin. The executive director, Lannia Syren Stenz, told the Wisconsin State Journal the name was being changed because the population they serve is getting younger. "One of the realizations we had this year is that our college students were born after Gilda Radner passed," she said. "We want to make sure that what we are is clear to them and that there’s not a lot of confusion that would cause people not to come in our doors.”
Coverage of this event jumped from the Wisconsin State Journal to Gawker.com and pretty much all over the Internet, thanks to Twitter and Facebook. Fans of Gilda, and common sense, pointed out that it would be more meaningful to teach people who Gilda was than to obliterate her from the organization that was founded in her name. Toward that end, actress Martha Plimpton tweeted that she had ordered five copies of Gilda’s moving memoir, It’s Always Something, to be sent to the Madison chapter. Others pointed out that few of us know who Mayo was, or Sloan and Kettering, or Dana and Farber, but we still can find our way to their hospitals when necessary. Among the hundreds of comments on the Madison branch’s Facebook page (now taken down) was this one: "The only educating you're doing is teaching kids that when they die from cancer, their name will be erased from history in 20 years because the next generation doesn't know who they are. Way to give them hope!"
While the Wisconsin affiliate doesn’t seem to have been swayed by the petitions, tweets, and articles blasting their decision, other branches were quick to reassure the public that they had no intention of changing their name. “As the flagship Clubhouse, we value our brand and our association with Gilda Radner,” the New York club posted on their Facebook page. The Chicago branch tweeted, “Gilda’s Club Chicago will remain Gilda’s Club Chicago in honor of the courageous way Gilda, and all of our members, live with cancer.”
Just two months ago, I blogged about the importance of naming buildings and public memorials after women, so there’s no mystery about where I stand on this matter. I was also a big fan of Gilda, who had the guts to bare her soul in the process of reaching her audience. (Just watch this clip from her movie, Gilda Live, to see what I mean.) She did the same in her book, an admirable, intimate account of her struggle with cancer which is back in print with a new Resource Guide and a new chapter on Living with Cancer. And besides all that, she was really funny. Just check out these clips of her characters Roseanne Roseannadanna and Emily Litella.
I joined the New York chapter of Gilda’s Club when a close friend was dealing with cancer. The other day, she reminded me that not too long ago, cancer was something you didn’t discuss. Friends would shy away from you if they knew you were sick and you pretty much suffered in silence. Thanks to Gilda and the movement she inspired, people with cancer have a place to talk about what the “civilians” in their lives might not want to hear, the gritty details of survival. Helping each other empowers them in their own fight. That's why if people don’t know who Gilda Radner was, they sure as heck should find out.