Sunday, October 17

Pain on the page: is this the end of the sick, hysterical woman of literature? | Books


“I I am fascinated by the line between writing and physical survival, “wrote Hilary Mantel in her 2010 essay” Meeting the Devil. ” After an endometriosis operation, I was writing about the need to express pain on the page. With your notebook always at hand, even in his morphine-fueled fugue, he wrote endlessly, recording the hallucinatory and the real, making up stories, and gathering almost enough for a collection during his time as an inpatient.

A bedside notebook is nothing revolutionary, but in the hands of a sick woman, and especially one with a gynecological disease, its symbolism speaks to the past. Women throughout the centuries have not always expressed their own pain in art and literature. More often, it has been expressed by men, in what Susan Sontag calls “sentimental fantasies” of suffering. These fictions reflect the medicalized notion of the female body as intrinsically ill and incapable of articulating its pain with any degree of reliability. For a long time, 19th century physicians discouraged even women from reading or writing for fear that it would inflame their illnesses. Their physical survival apparently depended on their silence, not their testimonies.

That has changed, and a tide of contemporary writers are offering corrections to the fantasies, often in the form of first-person memoirs and on a note of urgency. “I am not going to die. I’m going to write a book ”, Sinéad Gleeson tells her mother in her collection of essays, Constellations in the midst of a serious illness, as if a written narrative offered its own continuous existence.

The diseased, diverse female body idealized, demonized and fatally linked to its biology, is finally being recovered from within. Mantel’s account spoke of the “sewer pipes and vaults” of the body to describe a disease whose pain, for hundreds of years, was seen as an inevitable consequence of being a woman. Even today, Elinor Cleghorn writes in Sick women: a journey through Medicine and myth in a man-made world, “Women are frequently dismissed as neurotic, anxious, depressed, hypochondriacal, and even hysterical when they report the first symptoms of endo.”

Poet Sarah Manguso, at the forefront of this new wave of writers, wrote about her rare autoimmune disorder in 2009. Her memoirs, Two types of decomposition, he used sober, scientific language, with little euphemism or metaphor. She led us to every nook and cranny of her body, from injections inserted into her arms to suppositories inserted into her rectum. Manguso was not only untangling his bandages, but showing us the anatomical grinding of the female body and, in effect, demystifying its “sacred” parts.

Sarah Manguso has written about her rare autoimmune disorder.
Sarah Manguso has written about her rare autoimmune disorder. Photograph: Barry J Holmes / The Guardian

Many more recent narratives point to political inequalities around pain. Cleghorn’s book, published in June, it is a rigorous history of gender biases in medicine, which, in turn, have become culture. Irenosen Okojie Offers Alarming Account Of Covid’s Experience In Anthology Disturb the body, in which his pain is dismissed by emergency services. “I’m a black woman. I don’t have time to fully trust systems where the odds are against me,” she writes, and goes to the ER anyway, to be told by a doctor that she had a “50 / 50 “of surviving because of his breathing difficulties.

But there is a paradox at the heart of the old myth of sick femininity that is more difficult to dismantle; The disease is considered to be incorporated into biology, emanating from the uterus, the ovaries and the menstrual blood itself, but also, perversely, it is suspected that it is “all in the head”. The figure of the hysterical with the creeps is born of this paradoxical mistrust and is spread throughout the literary and medical canons.

Alice Hattrick responds to this troublesome figure in her memoirs Bad feelings, to be published in August. Both they and their mother is accused of hysteria after getting sick with me. “They told us that we were hysterical, that we were making up a language of our own disappearance, that for some reason we needed to be sick to get the care we wanted. My illness could be explained by my mother’s. It was as if our personalities were sick. “

Florence Nightingale was accused of compensating for her debilitating illness.
Florence Nightingale was accused of compensating for her debilitating illness. Photograph: The Press Office / PA

Hattrick links his personal history to a medical culture that defines some diseases as “invisible” and “mysterious” (through a lack of research on traditionally female ailments) and assigns them an “imaginary” state. In other words, women are still told that everything is in their heads. They get involved with the biographies of Alice James (Henry James’s sister), Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, and Virginia Woolf, whose diaries and letters are cited, and it is shocking to learn that even Florence Nightingale was accused of compensating for her debilitating illness (se believed to be chronic brucellosis), which her doctors considered had no physical basis.

What is especially resonant in Hattrick’s narrative is the eloquent anger that runs through his painful personal history. “I don’t want to be without that, that anger. Sometimes I think I have a right to be angry all the time … but it is exhausting. “

Anger, even if it occurs at the emotional expense of the sufferer, is at least a counterpoint to passivity and helplessness. Jenn Ashworth begins her hybrid memoirs, Notes made As it falls, with a gory description of a disastrous caesarean section and hemorrhage: “The rage returned and compared to the fear and panic, the anger was a comfort, so I held on to it as best I could.”

In my book Accomplished, a memoir on sisterhood and illness, I write about my late sister, Fauzia, who had a life of depression and eating disorders, and was disappointed and angry at the system. Her latest illness remained a mystery to her intensive care team and she was only diagnosed as tuberculosis, old and curable, the day after suffering a fatal hemorrhage at the Royal Free, a leading research hospital in North London. Fauzia was a fickle angry sick woman, her pain the opposite of the graceful fantasies of suffering Sontag spoke of. It was unpleasant and “unladylike,” spiky and real. I would be embarrassed if she raised her voice in the hospital bed, but now I see it as her own, and perhaps the only, form of power in a system that I mistrusted and, perhaps, mistrusted her. After her death, a hospital doctor even claimed that she was not the most reliable narrator of her grief.

Mia Wasikowska in the 2011 film adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.
Not sick or ‘crazy’, but enraged… Mia Wasikowska in the 2011 film adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Photograph: Laurie Sparham / BBC Films / Allstar

The irate “hysterical” in the literary canon has also been conjured up by female novelists and cleverly subverted for their own purposes. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (“The Yellow Wallpaper”) and Charlotte Brontë (Jane eyre) suggest that this type of woman is not sick or “crazy” but simply enraged by a world that has her in chains. Your characters may appear deranged, scratching at wallpaper, raving in their attics, but they could also be protesting patriarchal tyranny in the only way they can: yelling, behaving disruptively, and overtly unladylike. Michel Faber does something similar for modern audiences in his book The crimson petal and the white. The 2002 novel is set in Victorian England and features the prostitute, Sugar, whose skin is oozing with eczema rashes, and the upper-class anorexic, Agnes Rackham, who appears to be hysterical, but slowly she reveals herself as an abused woman who lives in fear of “asylum”. These two central characters play on the 19th century archetypes of the sick prostitute and the upper-class idle housewife, though they run the risk of confirming the stereotypes they seek to subvert.

While Faber is adept at creating compelling female characters in fiction, some women find it more difficult to write about personal pain when compared to a legacy in which the female incarnation itself is viewed as a disease. Leslie Jamison, in her 2014 essay, “Great Unified Theory of Female Pain,” describes the “double-edged shame and outrage in talking about my bodily illnesses and ailments.” He worries that a woman who talks about her wounds could end up consolidating the toxic tropes of damaged and diseased femininity, even in an attempt to dismantle them.

Hattrick has an answer for that: if illness or its expression is a source of shame, that feeling must be addressed: “Shame, in this sense, is a valuable emotion.” But it remains a Gordian knot for some contemporary authors. Perhaps that is why the poet Jo Shapcott wrote a collection of poems, Of mutability, not to mention his cancer diagnosis once. The disease is hidden within the poems but it manifests itself as a metaphor. “I’m not someone who chases his own ambulance,” Shapcott said in an interview, shortly after. Of mutability was published in 2010. Even Mantel seemed a bit apologetic for writing confessionally from his hospital bed.

“Women who write about disease run the risk of equating femininity with disease,” Ashworth writes, although this does not necessarily mean that writers are forbidden from finding creative solutions to the problem, and Ashworth herself writes about the disease in a way. original. He also suggests that the subject is more difficult to contain fictionally: “I am admitting that the novel, my beloved, cannot contain this. That fiction won’t do … Why can’t I write fiction about this? “Perhaps the expression of such personal pain cannot be turned into a ‘story’ for the moment, and must first be recorded in its naked reality.

In his 1926 essay, “On Being Sick,” Woolf said, somewhat more emphatically, that there was a “poverty of language” surrounding creative writing about illness. The Englishman, he wrote, “has no words for chills and headaches.” That seems like an old-fashioned view now. Mantel, for example, shows us how illness ignites his literary imagination. Words flow out of her and build stories, even when she’s too weak to hold a pen. “The torture chamber is where people ‘talk’,” he says, in response to Woolf.

Writers also increasingly speak from inside their own ambulances, shamelessly untangling their bandages, and showing why it might be important to poke around old wounds. “Why am I talking about this so much?” Jamison asks herself when a former boyfriend accuses her of being a dweller of wounds. “I guess I talk about that because it happened,” he concludes. “The women still have injuries. Broken hearts and broken bones and broken lungs. “

Arifa Akbar’s memoir, Consumed: A Sister’s Story, is published by Scepter (£ 16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, request a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.


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