The Family Tooth (2015): Ellis Avery

In this trio of very short but moving memoirs, the American author Ellis Avery revisits three key moments in her life. Each involves an uncomfortably close encounter with mortality, and a form of grieving, whether that’s for a person she once knew and loved, or a part of her life that is over. The quirky title is taken from the tooth, mounted as a pendant, that Avery finds among her late mother’s jewellery in the first part of this memoir-sequence. It becomes a symbol of the strange remnants that we leave behind us, a mere fragment of the life its unknown owner once lived. The two later memoirs show us Avery dealing with her own mortality, as she confronts a cancer diagnosis. When I first read the three bite-sized books, almost exactly a year ago on 20 February 2019, I found them engaging, pragmatic and compassionate explorations of the way we deal with grief. Little did I realise at the time that Avery had died only five days before I read them. Having read them again, knowing that, her courage and honesty – coupled with a refreshing lack of sentimentality – is all the more striking.



Avery and her sister are in Zimbabwe when they get the news of their mother’s death in 2011. Avery heads home to deal with the business of clearing out the house, finding it hard to grasp that this difficult, dedicated, troubled woman is now gone for good. Her mother’s collection of jewellery, especially her engagement ring with its gorgeous sapphire, becomes a prism through which Avery processes her feelings about her mother. Once she and her sister have chosen the pieces they want to keep, Avery takes the rest of the jewellery to be valued and sold; and that very practical story – of dispersal and celebration – frames her memories of their complex, fractious relationship and her mother’s problematic drinking. A meditation on loss, remembrance and forgiveness.

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In 2009, Ellis Avery was diagnosed with reactive arthritis, a debilitating condition that left her with inflamed joints and limited movement. She was prescribed Humira, a TNF (tumour necrosis factor) blocker, which was hailed as a wonder drug. She was not, however, made aware of research that shows TNF blockers – which prevent the body turning on itself to break down what it incorrectly believes to be tumours – can allow for the development of real cancerous tumours. Through a tragically coincidental series of extremely slim chances, Avery developed uterine fibroids which turn out to be malignant. She developed the rare cancer leiomyosarcoma (‘I felt my future slam shut, as implacable as a shopkeeper’s gate‘). In this essay, she discusses her emotions as she waited for the first post-treatment scan. Stuck in a nightmarish Schrödingersque situation, not knowing whether the scan would be clear or whether her cancer had metastasised, she finds herself obsessively imagining the worst. Fear, as Avery discovers, is a matter of attitude. Taking inspiration from her placid cat Fumiko, she turns her gaze onto fear itself and challenges herself to overcome it. A frank assessment of hope and human frailty at the rock-face, where all our certainties are undermined.

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For something that affects 50% of the population 25% of the time, people certainly get funny talking about periods. When Ellis Avery is diagnosed with uterine cancer, she’s told that her only option is a hysterectomy. This short but poignant little essay follows her struggle to accept this – not so much for the loss of her uterus, since she has decided she is happy without children – but for the loss of her ovaries, which leave her at much greater risk of osteoporosis, heart disease, Parkinson’s and dementia. She’s staggered by how matter-of-fact her surgeons seem to be, and how difficult it is to explain her position to her beloved partner Sharon. The doctors don’t seem to understand why a woman in her position would hesitate. Frustrated by the double standards that the world applies, Avery explains: ‘They all want to cut off my balls”, my angry brain fizzed, “and nobody cares.” Had I been a man, losing a reproductive organ would have been The Most Tragic Thing Ever, regardless of whether I wanted children. But I was a woman who did not want children, so it wasn’t supposed to matter.‘ But it does, of course. Deeply. Avery writes with gratitude of the example of Hilary Mantel, a shining beacon who underwent a hysterectomy at a young age and has remained vibrant, brilliant, celebrated. A heartfelt paean to the importance of ovaries, and menstruation, in shaping a woman’s life and giving her a sense of identity – and the cataclysmic sense of loss when such things are abruptly snatched away.

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You can also buy a much longer version of The Family Tooth, comprising a total of fifteen essays in one volume, exploring a broader sweep of Avery’s experiences

Ellis Avery (1972-2019)

Ellis Avery

Ellis Avery © David Levenson

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