In my novel Eye of a Rook, modern-day Perth writer and academic Alice Tennant researches the history of hysteria and gynaecological pain to make sense of her own mystifying disorder, coming up with the idea of two bodies:
One, a symmetrical image reflected in the mirror and the sight of other bodies, whole and cohesive. The other, a figure in fragments, its bits and pieces scattered through the brain.
Alice thinks of these two bodies in distinct terms: one is based on vision and logic, the other on sensation. She experiences her own body as fragmented by relentless pain and grapples with how or whether it can be made whole again.
I am not Alice, but much of what she goes through, I went through. In writing my novel, this ‘bits-and-pieces body-in-the-brain’ was the body (from which) I was trying to communicate. But how could I possibly form, in words, the body in pain? Specifically, how could I write a body riven by vulvodynia? How could someone who’d never experienced chronic vulvar pain understand these sensations? How could someone who’d never experienced any kind of chronic pain relate?
In the novel, Alice struggles with the same dilemma:
How hard it was to describe the sensations to someone who’d never known such pain – pain without sense or logic, pain that ate away at all that was good in you, pain that might never go away.
Emily Rochdale, whose narrative threads through Alice’s, has the same pain, but she lives in Victorian England and can find even fewer words; additionally, she is faced with the terrifying possibility of brutal surgery. In writing the stories and the painful bodies of these women, I had to find strategies which drew readers into material that, in being confronting, even repellent, might otherwise drive them away.
Figurative language can build empathetic bridges, so I hunted similes and metaphors that might connect readers with sensations they could understand or, perhaps, remember – ‘It hurts like a toothache that pierces the bones of your face and shoots through your thoughts, scattering them like frightened birds’ ; ‘Embers flying, settling in bursts of fire over her buttocks and down her thighs’; ‘Alice had a plantar wart treated once, the cotton bud, loaded with liquid ice, drilling a deep ache into her foot’ – and I sought out real-life items with which readers might identify: ‘The needling made her think of the pink satin of her old nanna’s sewing cushion, its bulges riddled with pinheads.’ In opening myself to my body and seeking precise and original words and images, I noticed my writing become more lyrical.
Showing how bodily pain affects the characters’ daily lives also makes it more relatable. Alice slouches in chairs, shifts from one buttock to the other, stands or kneels when she can’t sit anymore, all as she works, goes to cafes, drives to meetings. Emily’s journal, in which she records her private hopes and fears, ‘travels with her around the house as she moves from place to place, unable to find comfort or ease’.
While the understanding of gynaecological pain has barely advanced in the 150-odd years that separate the two narratives, Alice is able to locate words for the pain and express her suffering more freely. She is direct in her language – ‘It’s really … fucking … bad’ – and is able to disclose her feelings and receive the feelings of other women as she becomes comfortable in her support group. In the Victorian narrative, though, modesty cloaks precision: Emily’s letters to her beloved sister-in-law allow some release, but we know Emily’s anguish primarily through her husband Arthur’s eyes, like when she winces at his touch, or as he steadies her standing sway in their carriage.
The characters’ physical and emotional pain also finds form in their dreams. In Alice’s case, her body’s pain inserts itself into vivid images and dream sensations: ‘Flames licking inside and out. Nails hammered here, and here, and here, and here – beaten harder, knocking the parts against each other, into each other –’
Before the onset of disorder, sexual intimacy is a profoundly important and enjoyable part of the women’s lives: Alice’s pleasure is explicit, and Arthur and Emily’s desire for each other is no less evident for being suggested. As so many women with vulvodynia are made to feel their pain is caused by some kind of unconscious repression or ‘frigidity’, it was important readers understood that sexual dysfunction is more frequently the result of pain. Writing sex also gave me the opportunity to show the effect of Alice’s vulvodynia through before and after sex scenes. The use of the same words at critical moments expresses how fine is the line between her pleasure and pain, as well as the utter invisibility of that pain to Duncan, her husband: ‘So deep. Wide. I cannot. I cannot … Splitting into light. Cracking open.’
Of course, writing a painful body was often difficult, because I was returned by my own words to a place where the sensations were sometimes unbearable. But I was driven to write this body by other equally powerful if less choate reasons: anger that so many women live with this condition and so few people know about it; a sense of responsibility to the millions of women who can’t, for different reasons, speak for themselves; and an increasing awareness that writing this bodily pain shifted something within me, bringing with it expansiveness and a sense of wellbeing.
Easier to deal with than the content of the writing were the strategies I employed in language, grammar and syntax.
I deliberately avoided the wishy-washy and inaccurate language that’s traditionally used to describe female genitals because that’s one of the reasons vulvodynia and similar conditions remain invisible. At Alice’s appointment with Dr Gibbs, for instance, the words are particular and specific – vulva, vestibule, vagina – and when Alice visits her physiotherapist, we enter her body with the physiotherapist’s hand, feeling inner pressure against named muscles, ligaments, tendons and tissue.
Pain stretches time, so at the peak of Alice’s suffering I slowed the reading: ‘The seconds. Minutes. Hours. Days. Weeks. Months.’ Pain also contracts space, so I blurred the boundary between Alice’s mind and body: ‘The consuming ache inside – outside? Her body? Her mind?’ In Alice’s most profoundly embodied moments, grammar and language break down entirely:
and inside, the spongy muscular warm wet around her – gooey, mucousy, ropey, gluggy and straining aching needling and everything muddled and messy in a passageway, a cone, a cylinder, a vortex … nerves wetly sparking a body a mind a brain?
If severe pain fragments the body in the brain – that sense of who we are – then writing such pain can reproduce that fragmentation. But I was held throughout the writing of Eye of a Rook by the structure that formed when I began to write these characters’ lives, and more than compensated by the reciprocal and dynamic process that developed between me and this fictional world, in which the potential to form a whole was made possible through writing.
Josephine Taylor is a writer and editor who lives on the coast north of Perth, Western Australia. After developing chronic gynaecological pain in 2000, she was forced to surrender her career as a psychotherapist. Years later, research into the condition informed her prize-winning PhD thesis, an investigative memoir. Josephine is now an Associate Editor at Westerly Magazine and an Adjunct Senior Lecturer in Writing at Edith Cowan University. She teaches in literary fiction and creative non-fiction, and presents on disorder and creativity. Her writing has been anthologised and published widely. Eye of a Rook (Fremantle Press) is her first novel.