The Grand Unified Theory of Women’s Pain

‘The pain of women turns them into kittens and rabbits and sunsets and sordid red satin goddesses, pales them and bloodies them and starves them, delivers them to death camps and sends locks of their hair to the stars. Men put them on trains and under them. Violence turns them celestial. Age turns them old. We can’t look away. We can’t stop imagining new ways for them to hurt.’ But why?

A couple weeks ago my friend Izzy sent me a link to this: The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain, an essay by Leslie Jamison. I thought, yeah, whatever. I get sent shit to read all the time, I’m gonna be honest, it often slips between the cracks. But this. This. THIS.

If you’re a repeat reader you’ll have heard me rave a lot. You’ll have listened to me being sad and angry and more angry and probably sad again and every now and then I will find something that I will go on and fucking on about, like the book How Does it Hurt?

I’m afraid this is going to be one of those things.

I haven’t been so gripped by something that calls itself an “essay” in a long time. It’s long, like long long, and I fucking sat there and ignored my pain and read with an almost rictus-like quality.

This is an utterly astounding piece of writing about all the things that are so very important to me: women, pain, physical health, mental health, feminism. Women in history, women in art, women in pain, women now.

Why have women become associated with an image of fragility? Why has our pain been so romanticised? Where did it all come from? What effect has it had?

I started copy-pasting sections I wanted to share into a Word doco and I think you can guess what happened – it was like seven pages.

So really, really, if you’ve got some time – even if you don’t – read it. Read it in chunks. Read it on your lunch break. Read it cos its painful epic brilliance needs to be in your brain.

Having said there, here’s a few of my favourite bits. This was reeeallly hard to narrow down.

This bit is so much like what goes through my head:

I wrote to a friend: “I’ve got this double-​edged shame and indignation about my bodily ills and ailments—​jaw, punched nose, fast heart, broken foot etc etc etc. On the one hand, I’m like, Why does this shit happen to me? And on the other hand, I’m like, Why am I talking about this so much?”

Trigger warning for self-harm on the next bit, which I also really identified with. I would argue this is not just an American ethos:

A Google search for the phrase “I hate cutters”yields thousands of results, most of them from informal chat boards. There’s even a Facebook group called “I hate cutters”: This is for people who hate those emo kids who show off there cuts and thinks it is fun to cut them selves [sic]. Hating cutters crystallizes a broader disdain for pain that is understood as performed rather than legitimately felt.It’s usually cutters who are hated (wound-​dwellers!), rather than simply the act of cutting itself. It’s the actual people who get dismissed, not just the verbs of what they’ve done. People say cutters are just doing it for the attention, but what’s that “just” about? A cry for attention is positioned as a crime, as if attention were inherently a selfish thing to want. But isn’t wanting attention one of the most fundamental traits of being human—​and isn’t granting it one of the most important gifts we can ever give? …

Hating on cutters—​or at least these cutter-​performers—​tries to draw a boundary between authentic and fabricated pain, as if we weren’t all some complicated mix of wounds we can’t let go of and wounds we can’t help, as if choice itself weren’t always some complicated mix of intrinsic character and agency. How much do we choose to feel anything? The answer, I think, is nothing satisfying—​we do, and we don’t. But hating on cutters insists desperately upon our capacity for choice. People want to believe in self-​improvement—​it’s an American ethos, pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps—​and here we have the equivalent of affective downward mobility: cutting as a failure to feel better, as deliberately going on a kind of sympathetic welfare—​taking some shortcut to the street-​cred of pain without actually feeling it.

This has been true in my fairly extensive medical experience:

A 2001 study called “The Girl Who Cried Pain” tries to make sense of the fact that men are more likely than women to be given medication when they report pain to their doctors. Women are more likely to be given sedatives. The study makes visible a disturbing set of assumptions: It’s not just that women are prone to hurting—​a pain that never goes away—​but also that they’re prone to making it up. The report finds that despite evidence that “women are biologically more sensitive to pain than men … [their] pain reports are taken less seriously.” Less seriously meaning, more specifically, “they are more likely to have their pain reports discounted as ‘emotional’ or ‘psychogenic’ and, therefore, ‘not real.’ ”

On wounds:

In a poem called “The Glass Essay,” about the end of a love affair, Anne Carson describes a series of visions—​“naked glimpses of my soul”—​thirteen visitations: a woman in a cage of thorns, another stuck in a “contraption like the top half of a crab,” another turned into a deck of flesh cards pierced by a silver needle: The living cards are days of a woman’s life. Carson calls these visions the “Nudes,” and each is a strange, surprising, devastating vision of pain. We aren’t allowed to rest on any single image; we move itinerant from one to the next.

The first Nude is “alone on a hill,” standing “into the wind”:

Long flaps and shreds of flesh rip off the woman’s body and lift
and blow away on the wind, leaving

an exposed column of nerve and blood and muscle
calling mutely through lipless mouth.

If a wound is where interior becomes exterior, here is a woman who is almost entirely wound—​an exposed column of nerve and blood and muscle. Her body is utterly exposed and also severed from itself—​losing shreds of flesh, losing its lips. After the mute call, we get this confession: “It pains me to record this, / I am not a melodramatic person.”This closing motion performs a simultaneous announcement and disavowal of pain: This hurts; I hate saying that. It describes how the act of admitting one wound creates another one: It pains me to record this. And yet, the poet must record, because the wounded self can’t express anything audible: Calling mutely through lipless mouth. 

What feels most resonant here, to me, isn’t just the speaker’s willingness to grant pain such a drastic shape—​nerve and blood—​but to confess her shame at this vessel, its blood and gore, its bluntness.

These days we have a TV show called Girls, about young women who hurt but constantly disclaim their hurting. They fight about rent and boys and betrayal, stolen yogurt and the ways self-​pity structures their lives. “You’re a big, ugly wound!” one yells. The other yells back: “No, you’re the wound!” And so they volley, back and forth:You’re the wound; no, you’re the wound. They know women like to claim monopolies on woundedness, and they call each other out on it.

These girls aren’t wounded so much as post-​wounded, and I see their sisters everywhere. They’re over it. I am not a melodramatic person. God help the woman who is. What I’ll call “post-​wounded” isn’t a shift in deep feeling (we understand these women still hurt) but a shift away from wounded affect: These women are aware that “woundedness” is overdone and overrated. They are wary of melodrama, so they stay numb or clever instead. Post-​wounded women make jokes about being wounded or get impatient with women who hurt too much. The post-​wounded woman conducts herself as if preempting certain accusations: Don’t cry too loud; don’t play victim. Don’t ask for pain meds you don’t need; don’t give those doctors another reason to doubt.

Again, on being tired of talking about pain:

I find myself in a bind. I’m tired of female pain and also tired of people who are tired of it. I know the “hurting woman” is a cliché but I also know lots of women still hurt. I don’t like the proposition that female wounds have gotten old; I feel wounded by it.

I felt particularly wounded by the brilliant and powerful female poet who visibly flinched during a workshop at Harvard when I started reciting Sylvia Plath. She’d asked us each to memorize a poem and I’d chosen “Ariel,” which felt like its own thirteenth line, black sweet blood mouthfuls, fierce and surprising and hurting and free.

“Please,” this brilliant and powerful woman said, as if herself in pain. “I’m just so tired of Sylvia Plath.”

How could anyone be tired of Plath? Ah yeah yeah ok, I know. This bit is kind of like how I experience depression, often with no seeming cause:

I realized that this causeless pain—​inexplicable and seemingly intractable—​was my true subject. It was frustrating. It couldn’t be pinned to any trauma; no one could be blamed for it. Because this nebulous sadness seemed to attach to female anxieties (cultural models of anorexia and cutting and women addicted to male attention), I began to understand it as inherently feminine, and because it was so unjustified by circumstance it began to feel inherently shameful. Each of its self-​destructive manifestations felt half-​chosen, half-cursed.

I need to read Lucy Grealy, obviously. This passage here didn’t just grab me because of the way she describes taking “emotional comfort,” but the shame that came with “any attachment to pain.” And then – the negative reviews! These are like my commenters!

That’s how I discovered Lucy Grealy. Her memoir, Autobiography of a Face, is the story of her childhood cancer and enduring facial disfigurement. I read it in an afternoon and then I read it again. Its central drama, for me, wasn’t Grealy’s recovery from illness; it was the story of her attempt to forge an identity that wasn’t entirely defined by the wound of her face.

Grealy had been craving the identity locus of damage even before it happened to her; she was happy, as a little girl, when trauma first arrived: “I was excited by the idea that something really was wrong with me.” Years later, Grealy still took a certain comfort in her surgeries. These were times when she was cared for, and when her pain was given a structure beyond the nebulous petty torture of feeling ugly to the world. “It wasn’t without a certain amount of shame that I took this kind of emotional comfort from surgery,” she writes. “Did it mean I liked having operations and thus that I deserved them?”

In Grealy’s shame I see the residue of certain cultural imperatives: to be stoic, to have a relationship to pain defined by the single note of resistance. These imperatives make it shameful to feel any attachment to pain or any sensitivity to its offerings…

Most of the negative Amazon reviews of Auto-biography of a Face focus on the idea of self-​pity: “Overall, she was a sad woman who never got beyond her personal pain,” and “I found this book extremely sorrowful and drowning in self-​pity.” A reader named “Tom” writes:

In all of the books I’ve read, I’ve never encountered such terribl[e] moaning and wallowing in self-​pity. I can easily sum up the entire 240-​page book i[n] 3 words: Woe is me … In addition to a mess of crying, the author cannot seem to make up her mind on anything. First she says she does not want to be felt sorry for by anyone, then she proceeds to scorn others about their inability to feel an ounce of sympathy.

The woman Tom describes, “wallowing” in self-​pity and unable to decide what the world should do about it, is exactly the woman I grew up afraid of becoming. I knew better—​many of us, it seems, knew better—​than to become one of those women who plays victim, lurks around the sickbed, hands her pain out like a business card. What I’m trying to say is, I don’t think this was just me. We all grew up doing everything we could to avoid this identity: self-​awareness, self-​deprecation, jadedness, sarcasm. The Girl Who Cried Pain: She doesn’t need meds; she needs a sedative.

Leslie is trying to conclude when she says:

Lucy Grealy learned to be a good patient when she learned that it was possible to fail at being sick. “My feelings of shame and guilt for failing not to suffer,” she writes, “became more unbearable. The physical pain seemed almost easy in comparison.” She describes much of her artistic life as an attempt “to grant myself the complicated and necessary right to suffer.”

I’m trying to map the terms and borders of that complicated right. I’m not fighting for a world in which suffering gets worshipped, and I’m not just criticizing the post-​wounded voice, or dismissing the ways in which female pain gets dismissed. I do believe there is nothing shameful about being in pain, and I do mean for this essay to be a manifesto against the accusation of wound-​dwelling. But the essay isn’t a double negative, a dismissal of dismissal, so much as a search for possibility—​the possibility of representing female suffering without reifying its mythos.

I think dismissing female pain as overly familiar or somehow out-​of-​date—​twice-​told, thrice-​told, 1001-​nights-​told—​masks deeper accusations: that suffering women are playing victim, going weak, or choosing self-​indulgence over bravery.

Ahhhhhhh. Could I identify ANY MORE with this? Am I a victim for confessing my pain? Am I stupid for sometimes hiding it? Do I have the right to call myself a woman with a disability? Do I have a right to write about it?

And, the actual conclusion:

“For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on woman,” is how Simone de Beauvoir starts one of the most famous books on women ever written. “The subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new.Sometimes I feel like I’m beating a dead wound. But I say: Keep bleeding. Just write toward something beyond blood.

The wounded woman gets called a stereotype, and sometimes she is. But sometimes she’s just true. I think the possibility of fetishizing pain is no reason to stop representing it. Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain. I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.

Ahhhhhhhh. Ah. Ah. Ouch. Ah. Yes. No. Ah.

Anyway. That’s possibly enough frothing for now. It’s just always really so amazing to find someone else writing down my feelings, in such an adept and excellent and striking and on point way.

Leslie Jamison has written two books since this essay, the first is The Empathy Exams which includes this. I gotta find a copy.

I’m going to bring this up again. You’ve been warned.

One Reply to “The Grand Unified Theory of Women’s Pain”

  1. Pingback: “What an attention seeker!” | Writehanded

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