BOOK REVIEW: "In Doubt" by Drusilla Campbell

Review by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

Update: Dru died Friday 24 October 2014. Read her final blog post here.

In my experience, writing doesn’t get easier the more you do it. But there is a growth of confidence, not much, but a nugget, like a pearl, like a tumour. … So I’ve got cancer. I’m writing.  – author Jenny Diski, London Review of Books


This was supposed to be a book review. A simple critique of a new novel—In Doubt (Grand Central Publishing, August 26, 2014)—by a nice local author—Drusilla Campbell of San Diego—who writes about painful things with insight and a tender heart—In Doubt, child abuse; When She Came Home, combat-related PTSD; The Good Sister, mental illness.

But how do you stick to a book review when the author’s life has reached an unexpected climax, when she’s busy barfing instead of signing books? Writing about a writer whose sudden stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis swamped her August book launch is … awkward … sorrowful.

So you futz for hours, crafting questions that you hope dance along the edge of intrusive without tripping into it, that artfully blend the literary with the fatal. You email them to Drusilla and then wallow in doubt that the questions are challenging enough, kind enough, interesting enough.

She responds with utmost generosity: “You’ve written six very interesting and challenging questions for which I’m grateful,” however, “I start a new round of chemo today but when I bob up from that (about a week) I'll get to work on these.”

You worry that you should’ve kept the questions light and fun and easy, but you were too invested in your own writing. And then you don’t hear from her for eight days, and nine and ten, and you know you’re a real shit.

But she writes again, says she’s finishing up her answers, she’ll send them the next day. And she does. And she’s written good things, as good as her books, as good as In Doubt and its characters: the troubled boy and his disturbed mentor; the rape survivor who wants to reach through the boy’s armor, to defend him against his crimes, to help him find himself—and maybe recover herself in the process; the PI on an aching search for his lost daughter; the victim unable to forgive. So many lose ends, so much unresolved, so like life.

DrusillaCampbellLike the author’s life. But, having interviewed her before, you can hear Drusilla chuckle as she writes, “My life is no longer my own with treatments and appointments and all of it swimming around in my chemo-fogged brain.”

A chuckle, followed by something serious, because that’s her pattern. Because she’s been given six months to a year to live. Just because.

“Initially I was completely flattened by the diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer, convinced that I would never be able to muster either the determination or the optimism it takes to finish a book. It takes optimism and self-confidence, both of which are in short supply when you have been told you’re going to die. I grieved for the books I would never write.

“However, with the help of my husband, Art Campbell (a gentle, but determined, goader), I’ve come around to thinking it might be possible. A couple of days ago, I took down a book I started writing in May. It’s very different from anything I’ve done before, but it may be that that is just what I need at this time in my life. So I’ve begun slow work on How It Began, despite the possibility that I will never be able to finish it.”

Then Drusilla returns to the writer she’s been for three decades—not the writer bowled over by cancer, not the writer so weak and fuzzy she has to dictate her words to her dear husband, but the writer for whom the most important things are the people she loves and the work she loves. Just the writer.

“I have to ask myself if writing a book like In Doubt means anything in the big picture of my life. Thousands of books are published every year and quickly forgotten. Do mine make any difference? I’ve decided that they do. Each of my books has a single major goal: to increase my own understanding and hopefully the readers’ of what it means to be human. Self-contradictory, deceitful, full of hope and misguided ambitions and petty and perverted, and at the same time about hope and love and courage. I want to climb inside my characters' psyches and reveal them in ways that will help you see them differently.

“Gradually, I’ve begun to feel that the best way for me to live is to write, maybe it’s the only way to live my last months fully.”

And maybe those cancer cells will go on a zero-population-growth kick, maybe they won’t. Maybe there’ll be a miracle, maybe there won’t. It doesn’t matter.

Because Drusilla Campbell’s got cancer. She’s writing.

Love, K-B