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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 47.2 (2004) 160-164

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Special Section :
"The Visible Skeleton Series": The Art of Laura Ferguson

Seeing Yourself

When I read work-related materials right before bed, my head doesn't get enough rest, so I often settle in for the night with one of our well-worn books of comic strips—Doonesbury, The Far Side, and the like. One night a couple of weeks ago I picked up a treasury of Calvin and Hobbes (Watterson 1992), but on this particular pass, I got no relief, because I came across a four-panel ditty that brought me right back to thinking about my work. In the first three boxes, the parents of the ever-mischievous boy Calvin are seen smiling, walking through their neighborhood in winter, admiring unremarkable snowmen. In the fourth panel Calvin's father turns to his wife and says, "You can always tell when you get to our house." The joke in the panel is visual: Calvin's parents have suddenly come upon a snowman with two heads, obviously built by Calvin to horrify.

I just finished writing a book about people who are conjoined twins (Dreger 2004), and so as soon as I saw this strip I started wondering about what Abigail and Brittany Hensel might think and feel if they came across it. Abigail and Brittany, who are now young teenagers living somewhere in the northern Midwest, look a lot like Calvin's snowman; they are conjoined in such a way as to look like there are two heads on one body. I've often wondered, similarly, what the Hensel sisters might think and feel about Zack and Wheezie, conjoined twin dragons featured on the PBS children's animated series, Dragon-Tales. It's not that I'm having a "politically correct" moment. I'm not interested in insisting that artists be prohibited from equating profound anatomical differences with horror, or even in insisting that they get their biology right (conjoined siblings can't be of different sexes, as Zack and Wheezie are). I'm interested instead in thinking about what it must be like to know that your body type is very rare, and then to come upon artistic representations of it.

I have some sense that, if the representation is a relatively positive one (un-Calvinesque, if you will), such an encounter can be truly liberating. I've worked for eight years with people born with intersex conditions—people who in the past would have been labeled hermaphroditic—so I know that many of them felt relief, joy, even a pleasurable thrill when they came unwittingly upon the elegant, seductive classical sculpture at the Louvre of the Hermaphrodite. Just knowing there was an alternative to the medicalized, pathological, dehumanizing images of their conditions sowed seeds of radicalism. It isn't a coincidence that the first "Hermaphrodites with Attitude"T-shirt sold by the Intersex Soci-ety of North America featured a sketch of the Louvre's statue. To put it mildly, modern-day medical textbooks on intersex offered no such empowering images. Medical images of people with unusual anatomies typically represent their subjects [End Page 160] as what April Herndon (2003) has called "bodies in waiting"—in this case, bodies waiting for surgical "reconstruction" to "restore" what is understood to be a necessary normal.The typical before-and-after pictures of surgery textbooks make this even more clear.

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Figure 1
Crouching Figure with Visible Skeleton © 2004 by Laura Ferguson

The Visible Skeleton Series constitutes a whole other layer of possibility: what can happen when an artist with an usual anatomy engages in a dialogue with medical representations to represent herself. As she explains in her introduction, Laura Ferguson centers this work around her experience of scoliosis. Though not all of the pieces in the series explicitly refer to her twisted spine, all focus on the meaning of her structural dis/array. Some seem to suggest a particular understanding of her unusual anatomy—they suggest, for example, resounding pain, or ethereal grace. Others seem simply...


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