- Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber
If Sonya Huber's Pain Woman Takes Your Keys was a word cloud, those billowing masses of most-used terms, the central and most prominent element drawing the reader's eye toward its center would be the bold letters P-A-I-N. Besides the minor articles a, an, and the, no other word appears more often or more consistently in the twenty-eight essays that comprise this collection. Pain functions as the book's theme, holding at the center and reaching the outer limits of the personal essay form. Huber's near constant repetition of the word "pain" invites the reader into a richly individual and often indescribable landscape—that of chronic pain—a territory the reader may have never encountered described so carefully or forcefully in literature.
Huber writes of being diagnosed with both an autoimmune condition and rheumatoid arthritis at age thirty-eight. The diagnosis that names the pain taking up permanent residence in Huber's "glowing skeleton" serves as a springboard for a project attuned to a much deeper and nuanced exploration of pain itself. For Huber, living with chronic pain makes each day—and this remains an understatement—difficult. Add to that difficulty the fact that chronic pain, especially pain experienced by women, is so often distrusted, disbelieved, or dismissed, and Huber has tapped into an idea unending in its complexity. Precisely because her topic, her pain, is ever-morphing and in a constant state of flux, its edges shifting and nearly unknowable—the essay, a form without rules, boundaries, limits, or ends becomes the subject's most worthy and perfect vessel.
Six sections of approximately five essays divide Pain Woman Takes Your Keys into small and specific manifestations of pain's effects. In the book's opening section, "Pain Bows in Greeting," Huber introduces pain as a concept by the things it "wants," and in the second essay, "Pain as Lava Lamp," attempts the book's first metaphorical description of the sensation the narrator experiences every day: "It wasn't the whack of an anvil or the burn of a scraped knee. This pain sat warmly on the surface of my hands up to the elbows like evil, pink evening gloves, with a sort of swimming cap clenched on my head, with blue plastic flowers at the base of the neck, and a nauseating blur in the eyes." In the essays that follow, Huber recasts her pain in images. She does this out of necessity. "In fact, if I don't feed it a metaphor on a daily basis," she writes, "my pain devours me."
In the book's third act, Huber writes of the various "Side Projects and Secret Identities" pain has allowed her to create. In the following section titled, "My Machines," she pays homage to the physical objects that help her navigate "Pain Woman's" worst days, and in "Bitchiness as Treatment Protocol," an intensely-human method of coping with an invisible condition.
The collection would not be complete without an intimate view of Huber's home life, an aspect of pain studied in the book's penultimate section, "Intimate Moments with the Three of Us," or a lyric [End Page 39] exploration of one woman's connectedness to the universe at large. It is in this final section, "Measuring the Sky," that Huber's voice truly soars. "Pain is not a Jesus that wants anything from me. It doesn't scold or wag its finger, doesn't judge, and doesn't give a shit how its human handles itself. It just is, like the Grand Canyon, not as a concept or a postcard but the square inches that together find themselves forming a crater without specific consciousness of their outline," she writes in the essay "Between One and Ten Thousand." The voice here, Huber has noted pages earlier, sounds much different than that of "Pain Woman," an alternate identity who keeps pace writing, working, and creating art—even in the grips of...