Reviewed by Rachael J. Hughes
Susan Rudnick’s Edna’s Gift: How My Broken Sister Taught Me To Be Whole (She Writes Press, June 2019) is a brave memoir of a woman afflicted with Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser syndrome (MRKH) in the 1960s, who also weathers the unique lifestyle of caring for her sister, Edna, who is afflicted with highly functional mental retardation.
As a woman diagnosed with MRKH, my editor was eager to send me her book to review, and I was eager to read it. Females of all ages who are diagnosed with the MRKH condition—a 1 in 4,500 chance—have variations of the condition, but the experiences are similar in almost all accounts. Insensitive doctors, confused family members, and loving and accepting partners in most cases. These women, myself included, have the biggest hardship of all—loving and accepting themselves so they can lead full lives. And if they manage, as Susan has, to overcome the physical setbacks of the condition—most often short or “blind” vaginal canals—they also face the devastating experience of trying to adopt in America or otherwise, which is often a long and expensive feat—which often leads to utter disappointment if it does not go through.
Through Rudnick’s heart-warming tale, told with a warm and likeable tone, we see her struggle with the desire to be a “normal” teenage girl. Conflicts arise with the needs of her sister—a person with whom she was inseparable from in early adolescence. Rudnick shares without shame, and in a welcoming voice, how hard it was to deal with the conflict of expanding a “normal” social circle with the guilt of feeling that she was leaving her sister behind.
Rudnick tells the tale at some points in a rather quick overview form—especially of her adult relationships. I would have liked more detail here, but overall, she pleases the reader with endearing stories of how, when the world seemed to shun her, Edna was always there in her steadfast way, armed with the unbreakable bond of sisterhood—to bring Susan back into the light and lift her unto her path once again. This support line is requited when Edna faces hardship—including a big move and being denied certain privileged and/or care that she so richly deserves.
Both sisters are children of Holocaust survivor immigrants who grew up in a household rich with music but lacking somewhat in the nuances of American ways. Edna could care less, but Susan longs to have a normal American teenage life. At the precipice of young adulthood, Edna discovers, from a very informed doctor—not always the case with MRKH—that she is different. She will never bear children. She will have to deepen her vaginal canal with test tubes. Every day.
Not only do MRKH women suffer with this burden, but they also must come to terms with meeting and sharing these facts with a partner; Susan guides us through these experiences in her warmly-toned memoir. She does this with candor and sensitivity which helps the reader cope with the heavy burden of her suffering, just as Edna would have.
Overall, this is a must-read for women faced with sexual insecurities, adoption issues, and those who are caretakers for people with disabilities.