Robin Greenspun, dir. Semicolon; The Adventures of Ostomy Girl. New York: Icarus Films, 2015. 83 minutes.
Reviewed by Lyusyena Kirakosyan (Virginia Tech)
Published on H-Disability (May, 2016)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)
“Those who believe their suffering has been valuable love more readily that those who see no meaning in their pain.”
Semicolon is a film about two extraordinary women, Dana Marshall-Bernstein, also known as Ostomy Girl, and her mother, Cari Marshall, who share how they have individually and jointly coped with the hardships occasioned by Dana’s severe chronic disease. As Cari observes in the film, “Dana and I want to make a difference in the lives of others, we want to help raise awareness and let others know that they are not alone ... that there is hope.” Robin Greenspun, Semicolon’s director, intended to capture Dana’s spirit while also exploring the social stigma associated with Crohn’s disease by allowing Dana and her mother to share their story and to convey “the essence of how she gets through life with this ugly disease. My hope is that our audience will learn from her how we can all cope with any of life’s challenges with dignity, style, and humor. Dana’s journey changes daily, but her fighting spirit remains intact.” The film focuses on the physical and emotional havoc such a devastating and painful disease can cause in a person’s life and on acquainting its audience with that tough topic.
Semicolon was conceived in November 2013 during a lunch between Greenspun and Cari Marshall. In the course of the next few months, the camera followed Dana to Cleveland, Ohio, where she went for treatments, and to Las Vegas, Nevada, where she lived. In the film, Dana interviewed her doctors, who offered medical explanations of the symptoms and complications of Crohn’s disease while she was receiving her TPN (total parental nutrition) for several hours each day during her visits to Cleveland. As Dana cannot absorb any nutrients from regular eating and drinking, all her nutrition must be provided intravenously. At age sixteen, she had surgery to remove most of her intestine, leaving her with only a few inches in lieu of the normal twenty-five-feet bowel that most people possess. The film traces the events that led up to Dana’s decision between whether to experiment with a treatment that potentially could allow her bowel to absorb nutrients or to undergo a small bowel transplant.
The documentary explores a series of issues faced by the parents of children with a severe illness or impairment and by the children themselves. First, the issue of acceptance and self-acceptance is an important one in the lives of everyone with a severe illness or disability. What a child with a severe illness or impairment thinks about herself shapes the course of her life. As Arnold Beisser has put it, to accept something gracefully and with dignity, individuals need time, a nurturing environment, and an adequate replacement of the old with something new. Those who learn to accept themselves will have a sense of self-worth that empowers them to live their lives in a self-determined and personally fulfilling way. Dana’s reflections, tracing her journey during the course of making the film, documented her personal growth and self-acceptance: “I have learned so much—about life, love, people ... but most importantly, about myself. I met myself again for the first time in a few years. I’m a bit different than the girl I remember, but I am beginning to like her more and more as I get used to who I am TODAY.”
Greenspun notes that the recognition that self-acceptance is a gradual process helps one experience life as a gift and opportunity, instead of as an obligation. For Dana, humor and laughter have been powerful allies in her daily efforts to cope with Crohn’s, as her mother observed. Laughing at her own poop jokes seemed to improve Dana’s sense of well-being. Beisser has similarly noted how comforting humor has been in the process of his own self-acceptance and recovery. For Beisser, humor served as “a source of support equal to medical and nursing care” that not only made his disability bearable but also helped make sense and meaning of it. Although self-acceptance is critical, this film makes clear that without family and social acceptance, it would be difficult to address the injustices that many chronically ill or disabled individuals suffer, and it would be difficult to bring about social change.
The documentary explores the complex relationship between illness and identity. Dana’s parents recalled the despair and stress they endured when their daughter was young and before her diagnosis was confirmed. In Dana’s case, as in many others, Crohn’s became both illness and identity: Dana calls herself Ostomy Girl, referring to the surgical procedure that created an opening in her body and resulted in her always carrying an Ostomy pouch for waste collection. In Far from the Tree, Solomon has argued that being different can be very isolating, unless it extends into solidarity with others similarly situated. In the film, Dana shares that sometimes she experienced difficulties relating to her peers because of the severe nature of her illness and the treatment challenges with which she was constantly dealing. However, her college years brought friendships and positive encounters that created a sense of belonging and support she had not experienced before. Participation in online and social media communities with other individuals living with Crohn’s also helped Dana develop and maintain a sense that she was not alone and that others understood and were experiencing similar or identical challenges.
Despite these strong points, the film could have offered a deeper exploration of the issue of stigma associated with Crohn’s. Although definitions and descriptions of stigma vary depending on each marginalized group’s unique circumstances, one could argue that the dominant group marks or stigmatizes the “other” to create boundaries between “us and them.” Learning more about Dana’s and her family’s challenges in coping with stigma, and the mechanisms they ultimately developed to combat that discrimination, would likely have revealed important lessons that could encourage others coping with severe illness and impairment.
Finally, the persisting struggle of parenting a child with severe illness or impairment runs through the film. As Dana’s parents reflected, they admitted how loving their child had enriched them in ways they could not otherwise have imagined. Nonetheless, Dana’s mother shared she now felt grateful for experiences she would rather have avoided. Both parents seemed to have found positive meaning in their unrelieved suffering: raising Dana increased their empathy for others, motivating them to become involved in raising awareness about Crohn’s and about funds for research.
Semicolon portrays what a lifelong struggle it can be for someone with a severe illness or impairment, and for their loved ones, to gain acceptance. But it also teaches many lessons about grace and dignity in this process for everyone involved. Dana’s quiet courage and realistic and accepting attitude, which allowed her not to feel sorry for herself, at every turn reminds viewers that humor and laughter can, in Beisser’s words, “nurture us back to health for a moment, and restore aspects of ourselves which we thought we ha[d] lost forever.”
. Andrew Solomon, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (New York: Scribner, 2012), 42.
. See “Semicolon Offers One Girl’s Story of Intestinal Fortitude,” Vegas Seven, March 11, 2015, http://vegasseven.com/2015/03/11/semicolon-movie-survivors-tale/.
. Beisser was stricken with polio and paralyzed when he was twenty-four years old. His book, Flying without Wings: Personal Reflections on Being Disabled (New York: Doubleday, 1989), shares his experiences and reflections on being physically impaired and learning to live with that new reality.
. Ibid., 142-143.
. Ibid., 143.
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Lyusyena Kirakosyan. Review of Greenspun, Robin, dir., Semicolon; The Adventures of Ostomy Girl.
H-Disability, H-Net Reviews.
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