Sonya Huber's book Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir offers an antidote to the compressed media sound bites surrounding the 2010 passage of the Affordable Health Care for America Act and the looming fight over its repeal.
Huber, a Literary Mama contributor and former editor of Creative Nonfiction, teaches in the Writing and Linguistics department at Georgia Southern University and the low-residency MFA program at Ashland University. Her previous book Opa Nobody was shortlisted for the 2010 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Her work has been published in literary journals and magazines including Fourth Genre, Passages North, Hotel Amerika, Crab Orchard Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Washington Post Magazine.
Huber spoke with writer and activist Shannon Drury about Cover Me , which Huber calls "my attempt to see my life story through the lens of a health insurance card."
Shannon Drury: Why a health insurance memoir?
Sonya Huber: I have written journalistic and policy documents about health insurance, but I wanted to see what all that mess looked like in a normal person's life. So I started from the beginning, trying to pick up any threads of insurance I could find in my life story, from childhood through college through career and childbirth and beyond. The book tries to show how my health insurance options -- and lack of options -- limited and curtailed my sense of what was possible in my life. I tell the story of my own use of the public and private health care systems and the ways in which gaps in health coverage had permanent effects on my body and the bodies and lives of my friends and family. We talk about this in such abstract terms: coverage, deductible. The abstraction itself is shocking, and I wanted to make it visceral. It's about sex and bodily fluids and pain and joy and anger.
SD: I also read Cover Me as a pretty harsh indictment of class inequality in America today.
SH: There's such silence about social class in this country. . . . We're all supposed to see ourselves as "middle class," [which somehow includes] incomes from $24,000 to $500,000. But everyone who pays bills knows there's a lot more complexity there and that we move all over the place throughout our lives in terms of financial health and financial resources. By sharing our personal financial stories and breaking those taboos, we can build a larger conversation about what's really going on with income disparity in this country.
SD: Announcing "I have no health insurance!" feels socially acceptable, yet saying "I have no money for groceries!" would be considered a faux pas.
SH: That's part of the reason I think health insurance is such a great topic -- it's kind of a bridge between working class, un- or underemployed folks, and those who would otherwise not feel these pressures. The higher up you go in economic class, the more resistance there is to broaching these topics. I think health insurance also has that extra edge of taboo because it can make a person feel more powerless. I'm thrifty and crafty, so I get a small buzz or challenge from repurposing things, reusing, making do. I can charge groceries and rack up loans and have at least the illusion that I'll pay it off somewhere down the line when things get better; the [insurance] part allows me less denial and reminds me of my own limitations and mortality. I might be able to make a tote bag out of old towels, but I can't do an at-home hysterectomy. You're assured that the longer you go without insurance, [illness] will be messier . . . and more painful.
SD: That's very true. When a close friend of mine was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, she lived only two years -- but it was the world-class, insurance-covered treatment in Boston that gave her that time at all. A farmer in rural Montana with her condition would last six months, tops, with his family bankrupted besides.
SH: A former teacher here at Georgia Southern University was an uninsured writer in his 30s when he first got cancer. He's one of the people the book is dedicated to. He had so much medical debt, [which] impacts the choices you make about treatment, your ability to do surgeries and follow-up care. He taught until he couldn't stand any more.We watched him die.
SD: What has promoting this book been like? I'm guessing that I'm not the only one sharing my depressing health care stories with you.
SH: I do hear a lot of health care and insurance horror stories at my readings, but I also hear a lot more conviction and clarity about the fact that the system is nowhere near fixed. Last weekend I did a reading in here in Statesboro. An older woman raised her hand. She asked, 'Have you mailed a copy of this to every Republican in Congress?' I don't have cancer -- my story is not that dramatic. But even my own non-dramatic story, of spending my 20s and 30s sometimes insured, sometimes not, while starting a family, and without any hugely problematic medical conditions is still evidence that the current for-profit system -- even if amended or tweaked or whatever -- is not working. My readers have been very smart in connecting with that idea behind the book.
SD: You make some interesting observations about the way health care anxiety takes its toll on your marriage. As you note, "men are so Zen about their bodies, watching with bemused detachment as chunks of their insides come out and fall off. Balding -- a natural, nonfatal process -- was cause for alarm, but bona fide medical crises could be deferred." I think a lot of hetero mamas can relate to that!
SH: The gender thing about health care is so weird. I have a laywoman's theory that because we have to go in for annual gynecological exams and need birth control and because things so often go strange and awry in that department, that women are more connected to health care that way. And having to coordinate care for kids, I think, adds another layer to that.
SD: I daresay that Cover Me could not have been written by a man. What do you think?
SH: I'm really interested in this argument that I've heard, mostly articulated by working-class guys, that they are secretly terrified to go into the doctor's office because they will get the news that they are dying slowly of something awful. I think there's that sense that 'the cure will be slow and agonizing and expensive and might kill me, so why don't I just enjoy the time I have left until I croak or something falls off?' If there's a man who has a Cover Me story, I want to hear it. I totally do want to hear about this from a male perspective.
SD: Any chance that male perspective could come from your son, Ivan?
SH: I don't see Ivan reflecting any of my worry, thankfully. We talk about money and consequences and problem-solving, so he understands the need to be vocal (he wrote his first angry letter last year -- proud mama!) and the need to address problems so they don't turn into big problems down the road. But it's so hard, I find, to talk to kids about the fact that certain elements of our lives make no sense. We're still in that "adults will take care of it" phase, and I don't want to pop that bubble completely and create a cynical seven-year-old. He knows that I have various medical conditions, and we talk a lot about gratitude for medical care. I sort of gush that, so I hope he'll at least grow up with the awareness that it's a basic human right that some people don't get.
SD: As the book notes, you are now divorced from Ivan's father. How does a single mama make time for writing?
SH: I write for an hour a day, and that's only five days a week, no weekends. I'm always amazed at the amount I can get done in one hour but also at the energy it takes to protect that one hour a day. It's usually at 9 a.m., after the coffee kicks in. I'm so lucky to have a job (teaching) where my writing is considered to be part of my career. When my son was first born and I was doing freelance writing and proofreading and adjunct teaching to stay afloat, it became clear to me that regular time to write was a necessary foundation of my sanity. But any mom knows the time isn't always available . . . that's the real writer's block. I think I've learned to be happy with whatever I can manage to slap onto the page, knowing I'll have time in the next hour to shape it and revise.
SD: What's next for you? I see you have a creative nonfiction text in the pipeline (The Backwards Research Guide for Writers: Using Your Life for Reflection, Connection and Inspiration) Does that mean you're moving away from political writing?
SH: I'm probably going to continue to do political and creative nonfiction. I'm on both sides of that line a lot anyway, but I also like (love) the artsy-fartsy essay in the same way that other people love knitting. I can't stop making them, these ornate question-asking things that are about as useful as a tea cozy. My first published writing was all political, and it took me a long time to find my way in creative writing. Now I'm slowly seeing the ways in which those two can be woven together without having to apologize for either.
I had to research my own life for Cover Me, and I think that's important for any writer of creative nonfiction. I had a story in my head about my life, and at several points during the writing of the book -- both in revision and later in showing stuff to trusted readers -- I had to challenge and broaden my own interpretation and initial story about what happened. I have often struggled as a writer with feeling like I had to answer all the readers' possible questions, and one thing I have come to believe is that the questions can go right into the text, that they are some of the best material to share with the reader.
[In the textbook] I use some contemplative or meditation-based practices to help writers hone in on and record or research their lives, questions, and trains of thought. I am sort of a missionary about this, but I think the check stubs, the receipts, the stuff in the glove box -- that's the important stuff. I would urge writers to pay attention to and research the raw material of their own lives.