Hypatia 16.4 (2001) 155-160
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What Her Body Thought:
A Journey into the Shadows
What Her Body Thought: A Journey into the Shadows. SUSAN GRIFFIN. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999.
Last winter I fell on the ice and broke my foot. From a position of suddenly interrupted physical ability, I did not yet realize that this was a fall into a rabbit [End Page 155] hole familiar to anyone whose life is suddenly disrupted by injury or serious illness. Nine months later, the familiar refrain "the foot bone's connected to the leg bone . . . " repeating in my head, I am in physical therapy for a condition called "frozen shoulder" and for muscle strain in my neck, the fourth and fifth complications that have traveled up my body from the original break. None of these conditions is life-threatening, and all are treatable; I am told to expect a full recovery (thanks to health insurance--without it my situation would be decidedly different). Nonetheless, I have learned for the first time what it means to live with consistent pain, to move and place myself with care to avoid more pain and to guard the range of motion I do have. Surprise, the body is fragile! Surprise, my status in the world of the able-bodied is entirely contingent! Welcome to the human condition. These are lessons I thought I had learned from disability studies, but somehow that leap from the abstract human to the concrete me loomed larger than I had expected.
In What Her Body Thought: A Journey into the Shadows , Susan Griffin combines the concreteness of personal experience with seemingly more abstract social analysis to demonstrate that neither can be adequately understood without the other. This rich and profound book certainly depicts the capriciousness of illness, through the story of Griffin's precipitous decline due to what she eventually discovered was Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (CFIDS). Yet the book's larger purpose, in the tradition of both feminism and disability studies, is to use one woman's experience with CFIDS to diagnose the condition of society. Griffin calls on social and literary history, the emerging medical science of psychoneuroimmunology, and film and theater analysis, weaving them together with a family archaeology of loss that she suggests was a precondition of her illness. Tracing this personal history of loss due to parental divorce and alcoholism, as well as other factors, has a dual purpose: to explore its consequences in her adult psyche and in her body as preconditions for illness, and to illustrate how broader social problems are manifested in the lives of families. This is a multi-genre book, not only in its skillful combination of personal narrative and social critique, but in its format, which alternates extended reflections on illness as mirror to society (punctuated with brief journal entries) with four series of prose poems. Griffin illustrates beautifully the centrality of the body to human consciousness, through prose poems describing early childhood moments, experiences of connection and separation throughout a lifetime, the life of the body in the company of a lover, and finally the connections of the body to the larger nonhuman world.
Griffin's book belongs to the best critical work on the experience of illness, joining the company of Arthur Frank's At the Will of the Body as an illness narrative and reflection on the medical colonization of patients (1991); Audre Lorde's The Cancer Journals as a lesbian-feminist critique of patriarchal constructions of woman as inherently diseased (1981); and Eli Clare's Exile [End Page 156] and Pride as an exploration of the political economy of vulnerability, both human and environmental (1999). A useful addition to the broader literature of trauma (see Judith Harris forthcoming), this book also demonstrates how feminist analysis is central to understanding the vicissitudes of human bodies in a world shaped to the needs and interests of white, able-bodied, upper-class, heterosexual men. At the same time, Griffin also helps to develop the framework which first emerged in the work of scholars...