Marjorie Williams: 'Woman at the Washington Zoo' A new book collects the profiles and essays of Marjorie Williams, including some she wrote about the cancer that eventually claimed her life. Her husband, Timothy Noah, discusses The Woman at the Washington Zoo.
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Marjorie Williams: 'Woman at the Washington Zoo'

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Marjorie Williams: 'Woman at the Washington Zoo'

Marjorie Williams: 'Woman at the Washington Zoo'

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

The late writer Marjorie Williams was known for her razor-sharp profiles of Washington's political insiders. She mixed keen insight and pointed humor for her pieces in The Washington Post, Vanity Fair and others. Marjorie Williams died this past January of liver cancer; she was 47. She'd been diagnosed at 43, a mother of two young children, then five and eight. Doctors said she'd live three to six months; she lived three and a half years. Now her husband, journalist Tim Noah, has compiled a book of her work, including essays she wrote about her own disease. It includes a previously unpublished piece titled Hit by Lightning: A Cancer Memoir. Tim Noah came to our studios today and read part of that essay.

Mr. TIM NOAH (Marjorie Williams' Husband): (Reading) `I am now, after a long struggle, surprisingly happy in the crooked, sturdy little shelter I've built in the wastes of cancer-land. Here my family has lovingly adapted to our awful tumble in fortune. And here I nurture a garden of 11 or 12 different varieties of hope, including the cramped, faint, strangely apologetic hope that, having already done the impossible, I will somehow attain the unattainable cure.'

BLOCK: Marjorie Williams first felt a mass in her abdomen. She went in for an ultrasound, and it turned out there were at least five tumors. Tim Noah describes how his wife applied her reportorial charm as she lay on the table.

Mr. NOAH: In her utterly characteristic way, she's been frantically schmoozing the technician, so the technician did share with her what she saw, which was frightening. Some other doctors were called in to take a look. And she describes the scanner moving up her belly and all of a sudden something is visible on her liver.

BLOCK: There are so many occasions in this essay where she's describing a moment of what must be pure panic, and she manages to compensate with humor. And she quotes herself as talking to the radiologist and saying, "Is there a case to be made against my freaking out now?" when she gets this word.

Mr. NOAH: Right. Yeah, and the answer she got was, `Well, sure. And we don't know a lot about what we're looking at here.' And Marjorie followed up in her relentless fashion by saying, you know, `What could it be besides cancer?' The doctor said, `Well, I don't really know.' And really everything after that moment, from that moment on, was just details.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about this exposure that both of you had to the world of medicine. She makes it very clear in the book that you were the one who was going to do everything possible, pull any string you could. I think she quotes you as saying, "I'm going to be a total prick." I don't know if we can use that word on the radio.

Mr. NOAH: (Laughs)

BLOCK: But you defined that as just doing everything you can to...

Mr. NOAH: Yes, someone who was going to be relentlessly obnoxious about using every advantage I had. We were wealthy, we were well-educated, so we were able to pull lots of strings and get quick diagnoses. But as Marjorie writes in the piece, they all led us into the same brick wall.

BLOCK: It seems the way she describes it that almost to a man--and it does seem that most of the doctors that was dealing with were men--that they were unspeakably callous; they just could not offer her anything to hold on to. And she has example after example of times when they would just say the absolutely wrong thing.

Mr. NOAH: Yes. I think it must be a form of self-protection for doctors not to connect in any meaningful way to the human side. And she describes meeting one doctor who dealt with a lot of liver cancer patients, and she felt she could see him making the calculations in his mind, `Is it even worth my while to memorize this person's name?'

BLOCK: When she was writing this essay, which she hoped would become a book, did you know she was working on it at the time?

Mr. NOAH: I did. I knew she was writing a book. And she had an unrealistic view of the likelihood that she'd be able to finish this book. And I saw it as--my job was to bite my tongue and not point that out to her because it made her feel so good and what she left us with was so wonderful.

BLOCK: She writes about her concerns about your children. One of the things she's worried about--she says it ranges from the mundane, like will Alice, your daughter, ever learn how to wear tights, because she's seen you try to wrestle her into them and she's not at all convinced that you can do it.

Mr. NOAH: Yes, she has a very funny description of what it looks like to see me trying to put tights on my daughter. She said, `You'd think I'd asked him to perform a breech birth at the height of a blizzard.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: But apart with those, those moments that she worries about, she's worried about the big picture of what her children will remember of her and will they grieve for her all the time, and she says, `Well, what if they don't?'

Mr. NOAH: Right. Yeah, there are no good possibilities. Yeah, she was consumed by that worry, and I continue to be consumed by that worry.

BLOCK: The last essay in the book was a column that she wrote just a couple of months before she died about a Halloween that she spent with your daughter. It's called The Halloween of My Dreams. This is your daughter Alice, who was nine at the time?

Mr. NOAH: Mm-hmm.

BLOCK: Describe what this essay is about.

Mr. NOAH: Well, it starts out being about Marjorie's general hostility to Halloween as a holiday, and her confession that she has always had a hard time turning herself over to make-believe. She also points out that as a cancer patient, the particular theme of the fantasies in Halloween, the skeletons and the graves and--all felt very real to her. But then she describes seeing her daughter Alice getting ready to go trick-or-treating, dressed as a rock star. And just before Alice leaves to go trick-or-treating with some friends, she pulls her aside and puts all sorts of makeup on her, including lots of god-awful stuff that she ordinarily didn't allow Alice to wear, glitter and all that sort of thing.

BLOCK: I wonder if you could read the very end of this essay.

Mr. NOAH: I will try.


Mr. NOAH: (Reading) `We could hear her friends pull up to the curb. As her momentum carried her to the top of the stairs, Alice looked back and tossed me a radiant smile. She had become my glimmering girl. She looked like a rock star. She looked like a teen-ager. She looked absolutely stunning. She thundered down the stairs in those shoes, and as the front door slammed behind her, it came to me what fantasy I had finally easily entered this Halloween. I'd just seen Alice leave for her prom or her first real date. I'd cheated time, flipping the calendar five or six years into the future. The character I'd played was the 52-year-old mother I will probably never be. It was effortless.'

BLOCK: Tim Noah, reading from his wife Marjorie Williams' essay The Halloween of My Dreams. It's from her book titled "The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family and Fate." You can read excerpts at our Web site,

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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