Filmmaker comes to terms with loss from breast cancer

November 15, 2005|By SUSAN REIMER

Francine Strickwerda's mother died of breast cancer when her daughter was only 7, disappearing forever into the fog of silence that surrounded the disease 30 years ago. Strickwerda says she was ashamed to tell people how her mother had died.

Her own breasts appeared early, in the fourth grade, and she endured the mockery of classmates. But it was more than the teasing that made her so miserable.

"The [breasts] of doom had taken my mother. Now they were after me," she says in her highly praised documentary, Busting Out.

The movie, the first by Strickwerda, is both a short course on the history and mystery of the breast and a coming-to-terms exercise for the Seattle filmmaker, still haunted and grieving all these years later.

"[My breasts] felt like luggage I had to carry and protect in a hostile world. They made me vulnerable," she says in the film.

"After 25 years of running away, I am now ready to face them."

Strickwerda and cinematography partner Laurel Spellman Smith cover the female breast as completely as former Attorney General John Ashcroft did when he cloaked half-naked Lady Justice with a modesty curtain - an event they use to illustrate our silly prudery.

They report on Seattle shock jock Tom Leykis, who calls on female listeners to flash their breasts on Fridays, and on women who breastfeed in public. They interview burlesque dancers and a little girl going with her mother to buy her first bra.

Historians and social scientists talk to the camera about the power of the breast in our culture. They tell us that in other countries, where the nape of the neck or the thigh rule, the breast is considered about as sexy as an elbow.

Strickwerda and Smith filmed people criticizing both the corporate exploitation of breast cancer's symbolic pink ribbon and hospitals that take money from the manufacturers of infant formula while offering little support for women who might want to nurse.

But the most compelling illustration of our confusion about the breast is a segment that alternates between two women - one who is facing breast reduction surgery and one who undergoes breast enhancement. Their thoughts are the voiceover to grisly footage of cosmetic breast surgery.

The woman who thought of having her breasts reduced decides against it when she realizes how scarred her breasts will be after the surgery.

The woman who has implants looks as shocked by the results as the woman who views her breast for the first time after a mastectomy.

All of these women are trying to function in a world where someone else decides what their breasts should look like, and they are all miserable.

The documentary also includes a compelling set of interviews with the children and husband of a breast cancer survivor. The woman's daughters give voice to Strickwerda's long-ago pain, saying things to the camera, to each other and to their mother that were unspoken in Strickwerda's family.

"My mom just disappeared without saying goodbye," Strickwerda says.

By the end of this documentary, Strickwerda says her posture has improved, and you know she is talking about the way she has always hunched her shoulders to hide her breasts.

But the real proof is when she loosens her top on an isolated stretch of beach.

She is alone. No one else sees her naked breasts. And she doesn't show them to the camera.

But you understand that, for the first time, she is seeing them.

"Busting Out" has received limited screenings at film festivals and on certain cable channels. To rent or purchase a copy for your class or group, call 800-543-3764 or go to or

To hear audio clips of selected Susan Reimer columns, go to

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