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Christine Quinn and Angelina Jolie Get Personal

May 14, 2013

We’ve been talking a lot this month about speaking up, and two very prominent women did that in a huge way today: Christine Quinn and Angelina Jolie.

Christine Quinn, speaker of the New York City Council and mayoral candidate, went public about her battle, as a teenager and young adult, with bulimia and alcoholism. She described her struggles as a 16-year-old caring for her mother, who was dying of breast cancer, and secretly bingeing and purging to relieve her oppressive feelings. She continued doing it, and getting into serious drinking, in college, as she wrestled with sadness and the challenge of acknowledging that she was gay. It wasn’t until she had moved to New York and admitted her problem to Tom Duane, the gay city councilman whose campaign she ran, that she went into treatment.

“I just want people to know you can get through stuff,” Quinn told a New York Times reporter in her typically direct way.

Angelina Jolie made the more startling announcement today, also in the Times, writing that she has recently had a prophylactic double mastectomy. She writes that she carries the BRCA1 gene, which indicates a very high risk of ovarian and breast cancer; her own mother died of breast cancer at 56. The decision is stunning, but so are the numbers Jolie said she was faced with: an 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer, and a 50 percent chance of getting ovarian cancer.

“Once I knew that this was my reality, I decided to be proactive and minimize the risk as much as I could,” Jolie writes with awesome concision. “On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.”

Both Quinn and Jolie took big risks to make these public statements: They’re both very tough women with very public lives, and both obviously wanted to turn painful experiences into something positive, something that could benefit others. But I wonder if they both also saw value, at this moment in their lives, in being known as who they are, not who they were or who others want or imagine them to be.

In the heat of a mayoral race, Quinn has been characterized as demanding and volatile. She’s not, apparently, always nice when she’s frustrated—a trait she shares, I would note, with both of our last two mayors. Perhaps, as critics will charge, she’s offering this story to “humanize” herself; whatever the motive, it affords a less fairy-tale version of a life of considerable accomplishment.

And what can I say about Jolie here that isn’t understatement? Our reigning Hollywood sex goddess action hero wants the world to understand that she is a mom intent on living to see her children grow up. That’s speaking up for the kids.

Tagged with: Mental Health, Pop Culture