Miriam Engelberg (1958-2006)
Cartoonist Miriam Engelberg, whose best-known work found humor in her fight against breast cancer, died last Tuesday in her San Francisco home at the age of 48.
Engelberg’s book, Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person, was published earlier this year. The book details the painful experience of going through cancer treatment but in the end, Engelberg has her readers laughing.
Born in Philadelphia and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, Engelberg was a self-taught artist. In addition to cartooning, she and her friend Gayle Schmitt co-wrote and performed the black comedy, “Spit Out Your Gun, It’s School Policy,” about their experience as teachers. Engelberg’s solo stage show, “Interruptions,” was about a person calling in sick in order to watch daytime TV. Most notably, her work with a nonprofit group called CompassPoint inspired her Web-based cartoon series “Planet 501(c)3.”
Engelberg’s spiritual side was also evident in her work and in her humor. Born into a Jewish family and raised as a Quaker, Engelberg began practicing Judaism during college and later converted to Catholicism. She identified herself as a Catholic-Quaker-Jew.
Engelberg will be most remembered for her ability to find wit and humor in sobering circumstances, a quality that Jewish comedian Gilda Radner exemplified during her own battle with cancer in the 1980s. Though Engelberg’s life was cut short by breast cancer, her ability to laugh and make others laugh with her showed a sense of dignity and resilience. Moreover, her work presents a continuing challenge to assure that even painful experiences are not devoid of laughter.
Why is humor often so effective in dealing with illness? How do we gauge the appropriateness or the limitations of humor when discussing sensitive issues?