My ability to read books comes and goes, but definitely spends more time in the “gone” category! At least compared to the regular nightly reading I used to accomplish with ease. Two books I completed sometime last year were Ask Me About My Uterus by Abby Norman and Doing Harm by Maya Dusenbery. Both books were about women’s experiences of chronic illness, written by women with chronic illness. They approached the topic from entirely different angles, which made for little overlap between them.
The first book I read was Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain. From the synopsis, I expected the book to make a larger case about the societal conception of women’s pain, but it read more like an intimate memoir. Norman recounted tales of her abusive childhood, weaving memories which were, frankly, disturbing, with her adult life and relationships. Facts and expositions about chronic illness at large were sprinkled here and there, but largely overshadowed by the author’s struggle with her childhood traumas.
I haven’t yet told you what Norman suffers from, because I don’t rightly know. And, it seems, neither does she. Much like real life, her encounters in the medical profession leave her with few answers and little in the way of treatment. What I found hardest to grasp about this is it was not for want of trying, or the limits of medical knowledge, but because she lived in the US, and simply could not afford access to adequate healthcare. Norman recounts one particularly bizarre encounter at a medical conference where a table of doctors bragged about how best they could treat her, before she declared they could not, as she could not afford insurance to see them.
Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick was all I’d hoped Ask Me About My Uterus would be. It was quite the tome, taking up a good deal of space on my coffee table, but was not written in an inaccessible manner. Dusenbery, editor of Feministing.com, had clearly done her research, interviewing a wide variety of subjects including my lovely friend Mishka of Crafts, Chronic Illness, and Adulting. Once Mishka told me she had a quote in the book, I had to read through to the end!
To be honest, it wasn’t just Mishka’s testimony that compelled me to plow through Doing Harm. Dusenbery’s writing was riveting in itself. Split into 3 parts, the book had in its scope everything from the origins of the medical profession in the US, to the systemic exclusion of women and minority groups from medical school, to the treatment of women with disorders traditionally understood under a male model and finally to those women like Mishka and myself with “invisible” illnesses.
Although the author was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis as a young adult, Doing Harm contains very little of her personal experience. It more serves as a backdrop to lend an informed view to the factual story she weaves. Contrast this to Ask Me About My Uterus, where the author’s life story, and particularly childhood experiences, stand out against an overall theme of women’s chronic illness.
Doing Harm was my clear favourite of the two: it told a powerful story about women’s experiences in medicine, giving space to those women who might be further discriminated against because of their ethnicity, sexuality or other factors. The scope of the book was huge, yet the writing never got stale or dull. What Dusenbery discussed outraged me, and made me keep thinking and unpacking about the fallibilities of what we call science.
That’s not to say don’t read Ask Me About My Uterus. It was just different to what I expected, being, at its heart, a memoir about childhood abuse. I don’t particularly like memoirs, and I really wasn’t in the right frame of mind to read about such raw, visceral trauma. If intimate and challenging memoirs appeal to you, you will love this book. If you have some trauma yourself and feel like a book recounting their own childhood traumas might be upsetting to you, or you have an eating disorder and find detailed description of them to be triggering, then you might be best to skip this one.