His head is filled with pain, like a bowl brimful of scalding water. It is a strange, confusing kind of pain – it drives out all thought, all sense of action. It saturates his head, spreading itself to the muscles and focus of his eyes; it tinkers with the roots of his teeth, with the byways of his ears, the paths of his nose, the very shafts of his hair. It feels enormous, significant, bigger than him.from Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
I read two short poems by Doireann Ní Ghríofa: ‘I carry your bones in my body’ (“––– nobody ––– nearlybody ––– my small someone.”) and ‘Jigsaw’ (“how the arch of your foot / fit the hollow of my palm …”)
We then read an extract from the chapter, ‘Birth’ from Anne Enright’s Making Babies (2004), discussing it as we went:
– the frankness of the writing, as in, for example, the description of what it felt like after her waters were broken; and how unlikely it would have been that such a frank text would have been published or even written a generation ago
– the subject matter being not what some people would consider “worthy” of literary treatment, lacking literary potential: “to compare dressing-gowns – it took me so long to find this one, and I am quite pleased with it, but when I get up after the meal, the back of it is stained a watery red.”
– the humour, as in the description of men sneaking out from behind the curtains to watch the replay of a goal from a Portugal v France match
– the exaggerations for effect & how tolerable they are, as in surely not all the men were interested in the football
– the willingness of the writer not to endear herself to the reader, the importance of that in her efforts to be truthful; for example, in relation to one woman: “I am trying to be sympathetic, but I think I hate her. She is weakness in the room.”
– the crudeness (= honesty?)
– the idea of when labour starts officially: “I am in what the Americans call pre-labour, what the Irish are too macho to call anything at all. ‘If you can talk through it, then it’s not a contraction,’ my obstetrician said …”
– the believability of some of the states described
– the detail of her observations of her fellow unit C occupants, at times cartoon like
– “The room is full of miracles waiting to happen”
– the tenderness of some of her descriptions, yet even within those the signature blunt style: “When I put my hand on it, there is the baby; very close now under the skin. I just know it is a girl. I feel her shoulder and an arm. For some reason I think of a skinned rabbit. I wonder are her eyes open …”
– the visceral vividness of her descriptions of pre-labour and of the ward itself and what her fellow occupants
– the beauty & power of the writing about the build up to the delivery and the delivery itself and the newborn baby (with echoes of Ní Ghríofa’s poem: “I laid her on my stomach and pulled at my T-shirt to clear a place for her on my breast.”)
– the immediate return to full-on description of the facts: “smeared as she was with something a bit stickier than cream cheese”
– the poetic nature of the final scene which in a way echoes the birth scene that precedes it, only in this case Enright-the-mother is being “delivered”, speechless like a baby, by the nurse who saves her from drowning in the amniotic fluid of the shower!
– “she is saturated with life”
Finally, we read and discussed the chapter, ‘Abdomen 2003’, from Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am in which she describes her experience of an emergency Caesarean section and the prelude to it.
– the unacceptably abrupt interruption of the registrar, who failed to allow MF to finish her “speech”
– the physical appearance of Mr C, the consultant, as described by MF, the details she has chosen to draw attention to perhaps reflecting the impression she got of him and wants us to get: “tall man with severe comb-tracks in his black hair”
– the prototypical nature of Mr C, the consultant’s behaviour: “to yank me bodily up out of my seat” … “‘Get up,’ were his first words to me …” … “‘There is nothing wrong with you,’ he pronounced …” … “talked over me…” … “What was wrong with me, that I was so afraid of a bit of pain?” … “‘Do you have any proof?'” …
– the believability of this given he is such a textbook version of the rude & brusque doctor & a perfect representative for the patriarchal nature of certain parts of medicine
– the dynamic between the consultant & the registrar, and how this might point to the negative influence he might have on all the team he is in charge of
– the factors in why MF didn’t do or say what she knows she should have to call a halt to Mr C’s patronising, insulting, unethical & bullying behaviour
– the poetic quality of having the stranger in the operating theatre represent everything that Mr C & the system wasn’t about healthcare: simple, human attention & empathy & comfort
With themes of truth & hope underpinning the session, it being International Men’s Day, we read texts mostly by women about pregnancy, labour, babies and girls!
We started, though, with a run through Yeats’ ‘Paudeen’. They’re getting there. We had a recap on last week, and a summary of Maeve Binchy’s ‘Anna’s Abortion’.
From that we read and analysed an extract from Emilie Pine‘s ‘From the Baby Years’ section of Notes to Self. The extract dealt with the loss of her one and only pregnancy. We discussed how particularly invested Pine was in the pregnancy (“I see that I’m shaking”) and how that comes through in her hope & wishful thinking in the face of contrary information/evidence > “Maybe I am wrong. / Maybe the date is wrong.”
We discussed how despite our ideals of professionalism and standardisation, we nonetheless often sense and operate by other, more human realities >
“I have a moment of hoping this coincidence [of going to the same university as the doctor] will make her well-disposed towards me”.
We mentioned how bizarre it is how we often act contrary to our truths, pretending because of not wanting to reveal our uncertainties or to risk appearing not in control > “I pretend like I’ve done this before”.
I emphasised how honestly Pine was recounting all of this now as the narrator. We discussed the contrast between how Pine is aware of the constraints on the staff when it comes to pronouncing the still growing foetus dead, and her actual anger >
“I am furious. At the situation and, specifically, at them. I am a woman, in grief, and these women will not look me in the eye as a fellow woman and tell me that I’m not going to be a mother.”
We discussed the possibility that shame felt by the midwives was behind their failure here. We discussed the blunt honesty of Pine’s admission of how she felt observing the pregnant women outside the National Maternity Hospital > “I would be a better mother. I deserve it more.”
I emphasised how honest a writer she is in her retrospective analysis of her actions and thoughts >
“I am so deep into this that I don’t even see the problem with comparing not being pregnant to a serious illness.” And I therefore suggested she was a welcome/useful voice to hear in the context of how complex the doctor-patient relationship can get, with two flawed “entities” contributing to it. (It is too often presented over-simplistically as rude doctor failing innocent patient.)
We moved on to Maggie O Farrell‘s I Am, I Am, I Am, specifically an extract from the chapter called ‘Abdomen 2003’ that recounts the birth-plan for and delivery of her child. (I used the adapted version published by Time magazine.) We discussed how incredibly rude (almost literally: not credible) the consultant, Mr C, was. I paused on and parsed the sentence: “I wish now I’d left there and then, but at the time I was so astonished I complied.” I asked whether or not O Farrell was being as retrospectively honest as Pine here. Was it just astonishment?
[I diverted for a moment to read this important passage from Pine’s last chapter:
The stinging irony, of course, was that my entire talk was about ways that women are intimidated into silence. And here I was, with a platform to speak [having just given a lecture on the silencing of women about rape], finding myself with the same difficulty. The Faculty Chair’s comment [“I find it hard to reconcile how you look and your manner with your subject matter. I mean you look … I don’t want to use the word ‘cute’ but …”] implied that I shouldn’t be talking about rape. It is more than just tedious, this women-should-be-seen-but-not-heard attitude. It is a way of telling women to back to where they belong, back to being silent. I am gobsmacked that I still encounter this attitude in the university. And I am, most of all, weary of having to come up with something in response. I should have called him on his misogyny. But in the moment that he said it, I did not even allow myself to think about the implications of his comment. I wanted to look professional. I wanted to seem strong. I wanted to move on. As so I side-stepped. Which is, of course, a kind of silence.
I suggested Pine’s analysis was possibly true for the O Farrell situation too.]
The reappearance later in the episode of Mr C as O Farrell’s “saviour” was useful in setting up the idea that sometimes the rude doctor is all we’ve got, and maybe we just have to learn as patients how to deal with it, how to communicate with them to protect ourselves.
We contrasted, as O Farrell clearly intends, Mr C with the stranger in beige scrubs who comes to her emotional rescue while “a room full of people … are frantically working to save [her] life.” > “He stepped towards me, away from his wall, and took my raised hand. He enfolded it in both of his. I gazed up at him mutely. His touch was infinitely gentle but firm and sure. He stayed with me while they stitched and stapled me together again; he took the weight of my head and shoulders as they lifted me from the operating table onto a gurney.” [Italics added.]
We then read & analysed a story written by a man, Yay! (albeit a Michael Longley type of man > “I’m finely attuned … to the feminine side of the men I like. I really don’t like men who are pumped full of testosterone. I like my men to have a large dose of the feminine virtues.”) ‘The Girl with a Pimply Face’ by William Carlos Williams is one of my favourite texts to discuss with medical students because at first the male doctor’s sexualised descriptions of the teenager he meets on a house visit (“She had breasts you
knew would be like small stones to the hand”) make him seem just “creepy” (as was said today). We analysed the story in considerable detail and discussed too many things to summarise here, but with similar themes as above, of honesty, truth telling, self-awareness … and the sources of hope amidst all the negativity and human failure.
The girl with acne acts like Pine & O Farrell wish, with hindsight or in the very moment, they had acted.
The Williams story is set in a poor, immigrant neighbourhood where people from socially disadvantaged situations do what they have to and can to survive. The doctor too. He (like Sassall in Berger’s A Fortunate Man) in the identifies more with them than he does his colleagues, and he sees in the teenager a sign of something that offers hope. (“She was just a child but nobody was putting anything over on her if she knew it, yet the real thing about her was the complete lack of the rotten smell of a liar.”)
To emphasise the socioeconomic angle of this (and of the Berger text from last week), I read the only poem of the week, Julia Donaldson’s brilliant version ofThe Magic Paintbrush (with equally brilliant and clever illustrations by Joel Stewart, which I showed them as I read):
"He slips the brush into her hand
And tells her to be sure
Never to paint for wealthy folk
But only for the poor."
I say straight up to them, emulating as best I can the girl with pimples: what if the paintbrush is your medical qualification and what if we told you only to treat poor people. That stirs things up a good bit. I tell them class is over.