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  • Poisoned SubjectsLife Writing of des Daughters
  • Emily Johnston (bio)

When thousands of doctors began prescribing a drug intended to improve pregnancy outcomes to as many as 5 million patients in the 1940s, most medical professionals believed they were conforming to the highest standards of care. Few patients, one imagines, questioned the wisdom of the gynecologists and family practitioners who told them that this little white pill would "save" their babies.1 By the mid-1970s, however, the situation looked drastically different. That little white pill, diethylstilbestrol (des), had been proven to cause a rare vaginal and cervical cancer in young women exposed as fetuses to the drug their mothers took, and studies continued to demonstrate additional health risks. In the 1940s doctors had been saving babies; by the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond, women who took the drug, and their children, came to see themselves as "exposed" to what turned out to be a toxic chemical. They were victims poisoned by a pharmaceutical industry that cared more about profits than patients. They sought to get the word out about des, to make their stories heard, and to gain compensation from the industry they blamed for their injuries.

Like all people who seek recognition as having been exposed to toxic chemicals, women and men affected by des had to "make a case" for themselves as what I call poisoned subjects. Rhetorics of toxicity and their moral stakes powerfully shape the kinds of stories available to des-exposed people as they make a case for and make sense of their experiences with toxicity, illness, and disability. The heroic plot of toxic dramas, along with the figure of the "des daughter" and the potent narratives of sexual trauma that gained momentum in the 1980s, contribute to a dominant narrative of what it means to be des-exposed. Even as this narrative emerges out of the stories of people affected by diethylstilbestrol, it becomes a paradigm for future stories, shaping the des movement and its associated identities. In many ways this has contributed to the movement's successes. Yet the predominant des narrative [End Page 31] also functions as a norming project that privileges some stories—and some bodies—over others.

What are the stakes of claiming a politicized identity around an illness experience? Which stories and which people are excluded when stories of illness and toxicity become familiar? The des movement has been heavily invested in narratives of threatened reproductivity and relationality that uphold traditional models of the family and women's place within it, even while they issue challenges to the medical and corporate communities rooted in feminist practice.

narrative and political identity

Personal testimony has played a significant role in shaping the cultural script around des and is a key strategy more broadly in embodied health movements.2 These social movements build collectivities around material bodies as activists simultaneously challenge and collaborate with scientific communities.3 Embodied health movements both mobilize and are shaped by stories of individual illness experience, which coalesce into collective identities and drive political action around an issue. Previous studies emerging from the social sciences have demonstrated the import of personal testimony within the des embodied health movement. Sociologist Susan Bell, for example, has argued that des is best understood through the intersection of feminist health scholarship, embodied health movements, and narrative analysis.4 Others have situated the movement and its narratives in relation to the resurgence of environmentalism in the United States in the same period as the des and women's health movements.5 There has been less attention paid to des in the humanities; ecocritical and science and technology studies scholars who have addressed des narratives have often turned to Ruth Ozeki's 1998 novel My Year of Meats.6 This essay addresses a specific gap between these overlapping bodies of des literature (narrative analysis, environmental studies, and literary criticism) by reading des life narratives within ecocritical frameworks. That is, it takes a literary critical approach to the personal testimony of des daughters in order to explore relationships between gender, disability, and the narrative structures of toxicity in autobiographical accounts of des exposure.

The des embodied health movement connects individual stories to wider social...


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pp. 31-63
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