Delicious Ambiguity: A Look Back at Gilda Radner’s Autobiography, “It’s Always Something”

When I checked out Gilda Radner’s autobiography, “It’s Always Something” from the library, I had no idea what I was getting into.  The extent of my knowledge merely spanned Saturday Night Live comedian and cancer, breast? Divine providence, nosiness, morbidity, who knows, something drew me in.  In the end, what it amounted to was two days of reading, about four break-down, hysterical crying sessions, about two weeks of PSTD depression, and a new name for my unborn or adoptive daughter.

In 1986, Radner was given the sentence of ovarian cancer after getting the proverbial runaround from physicians, all ending in one misdiagnoses after another for nearly a year.  From start to finish, Radner writes this book as she is experiencing cancer treatments including chemotherapy, radiation, barium in every orifice, water flushes, a microbiotic diet and about everything in between.  For three years, she is put through hell on earth, both of the physical and mental kinds.  She describes just about every thought and experience, including intimate arguments with husband Gene Wilder, her fears concerning her prognosis, her many bowel blockages, losing her hair (and she means everywhere), her involvement with The Wellness Community, bulimia, jealously, her inability to bear children, and one of her biggest support systems, her dog Sparkle.  You are privy to her ups and downs, to her raw depression, desperation and the depths that she explores are beyond what most of us can conceive of.  The book is in essence her diary, and this is how she pulls you in and makes you her friend and confidant.  My appreciation of this text arose within the first two chapters when I realized that she wasn’t pulling any cheap shots.  There weren’t any defense mechanism type of jokes to lighten any of her or our uncomfortable feelings concerning cancer; it was pure honesty.  She puts it all on the table so we’re all on the same page and look at her situation for what it really is–cancer that could be life threatening and how she’s learning to deal with that.

The book ends in 1988, approximately three years from start of cancer treatments to current day, and she sums up by saying that she is still receiving treatment and is hopeful.  We are left, as she is, in a state of “delicious ambiguity.”  An uncertain future is a good future because we don’t know what will happen, and that means that anything is possible.  Only we know all too well the outcome of this story: Gilda died in 1989 after being in a coma for three days while being put under for a CAT scan.  What makes this book so amazing is that it is in essence a documentary of three years of her life, straight from the horse’s mouth.  What also makes this book so amazing, and so sobering, is that we are privy to real-life dramatic irony.  She confides in us that she wants to live and we are unable to tell her the painful truth.

Was her struggle for nothing?  Of course not.  Though I am left with feelings of torment as I reflect on her story and anger at how unfair it was that she had to suffer for nearly five years (with nearly two years of unnamed pain and discomfort).  And though I am having trouble seeing past the injustice and senselessness that life sometimes throws at us, the strength and raw hutzpah that Radner threads throughout her trial is palpable.  She relentlessly keeps her chin up, and when it’s down, it’s part of the dialogue.  Living from day to day is a huge priority for her–potlucks, interacting and sharing experiences with others facing cancer, swimming, tennis, and even making the doctors and nurses laugh are all therapeutic for her emotional and physical recovery.  Towards the beginning of her treatments in the hospital, she would arrive with several pairs of silly slippers and moan comically and tragically through the intercom from her bed, all in the name of keeping her spirits up.  Whenever possible, she tried to make the process hers.

Three days after finishing the book, I returned it to the library in which I work and was reluctant to release it.  Sure, I could have deviously discarded it and kept it for myself in the name of collection development.  But then I thought, if I keep it for myself, then no one else at the library will happen upon on it as I did, maybe changing their lives as well?  Later in the day, the dark cloud of Gilda’s death was still hovering over me as I was coincidentally searching for obituaries on microfilm when it shut down unexpectedly as I was making a copy.   After four failed attempts at printing Mr. Jones’s obit, I went for help, only to find out that it was just out of paper.  As I shook my head and cursed my carelessness, my library director walked by and said, “never mind,” in the voice of who else, Gilda’s famed and opinionated social commentator, Emily Litella.

Delicious ambiguity.

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9 thoughts on “Delicious Ambiguity: A Look Back at Gilda Radner’s Autobiography, “It’s Always Something”

    • jilliemae says:

      It was depressing, but don’t let that deter you! It was also beautiful and since I had that break down in front of you, I have felt surprisingly uplifted and I know that it’s because of her spirit.

  1. Granny says:

    Gilda radners book was beyond anything I have ever read.I loved

    it, I hated it. It was too hard. Parts of it made me laugh till I was hurting all over, no, that was not hurt from joy. It was hurt from the bravest person I will ever come to know thru written word.
    I read it when it came out, was that the 80’s. I couldn’t put it down. I couldn’t pick it up to resume the pain, yet I had to know. How could anyone endure what she went thru. How could I return the book to the oblivion of the book shelf. What if no one knew about her bravery,her humor, her pain. thank you for refreshing me, for the memory remembered of a very experience to hard to believe

    • jilliemae says:

      I had no idea that you had read it! It was truly the most affecting book that I have ever read and I had no idea that she went through so much towards the end of her life. It’s amazing that you read it in the 80s, and I read it in the 2000s and the reaction to what she went through is steadfast.

  2. jenn says:

    Great post, and sounds like it is an amazing book and story. I have always been a big fan of Gilda and Gene. My grandmother who raised me died of lung cancer, so I don’t think i’ll be reading it anytime soon.

  3. Sherry Brzeczka says:

    I read this book years ago. I will likely purchase it now, as my experience through family with cancer is a reality. The rawness of her writing the story of her struggle is a reminder that there are choices and strategies only you can control. Going down without a fight was never the plan. I’ve always been a Gene Wilder fan, and through her words I fell even further for him. Compassion and love, with determination and support. Read the book. Don’t deny yourself.

    • jilliemae says:

      I read this book a while ago and I still think of it all the time. It’s one of the few books in my life that really stuck with me, and it’s amazing to hear how so long after its publication it still touches people who read it.

  4. Sally Clinton says:

    I also was and am a fan of Gilda. I read the book when it was first published. I both laughed and cried. I want to purchase the book as I do not have the original publication. She was as n extraordinary woman never to be forgotten.
    RIP Gilda.

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