Monthly Archives: May 2011

So I’ve been thinking, over the past few days, about the bits and pieces of our selves that might constitute a life. The pieces that construct the story of who we are, how we think, what we do … things that, in essence, offer insight into our identities. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in hospital settings over the past week. Day surgery followed by a sudden spike in temperature and a return to emergency, followed by care for a convalescing child. And throughout these periods, I’ve reflected on the bits of the self that we left behind in each of those places and whether it might ever be possible – or even necessary – to recover them.

You see, I’m not so much interested in the stories we write down as I am in the other artifacts of life.

The intangibles, like conversation, laughter, facial expression – fleeting moments of both self-revelation and communion with the other.  These, as so many thinkers in the eighteenth century have discussed, are the essence of social life. They define the space of our relationships with one another. And yet they can never be grasped. Wisps of clouds, they are not fixed; they are ephemeral. Moments gone before you even realise they happened.

But what of the tangible bits of self? The blood shed during my son’s operation. The tape that now covers his incision. The stickers offered to him by the lab technician, a reward for having his blood drawn. His hospital tag. And all the endless paperwork I had to sign. What do all these bits tell about who we are and what we are?

They reveal a medical history, for sure. A story of leakages and blockages occasioned, perhaps, by a premature birth. They reveal a blood type, and from that blood type a lineage that passes through my son to me and then, to my father … all of whom share the same rare blood. They reveal our religious difference, atheists in local world that is still largely shaped by (mostly) Christian belief. They reveal my son’s desires – two stickers of trucks – but they also reveal the limitations of the hospital’s vision: not only was he not offered any  ‘girly’ stickers, but one of the nurses was reluctant to ask if he happened to be wearing nail polish or jewellery. I suppose she couldn’t have known that he’d come home with silver nail polish just two weeks ago….

But I found myself most intrigued by a display case in the pre-operative room. The cases houses all the things they’ve removed from children’s bodies over the past forty years or so. Some things are obvious: swallowed coins, bits of nuts that went down the wrong ‘pipe’ and ended up in the lungs rather than the stomach. Some are gruesome: a large chunk of wood removed from a child’s thigh; a fish hook removed from a hand … I can only imagine the pain these children went through.

And then, there’s the artefact removed from my other son’s body. Yes, it’s there, too, a small pink object glued to a piece of white paper with a typewritten description beneath it: PENCIL ERASER REMOVED FROM EAR. Yes, at some point in 2008, my older son managed to put a pencil eraser in his ear. We found it last year.  And as I sat there, looking at it together with son #2 (who was fascinated), I wondered too about the bits of identity revealed in that small pink blob. Who is this child who puts a pencil eraser in his ear?

Like one of those amazing collections of strange and marvellous things gathered by wealthy men in times past, this display case fascinates, beseeches, and draws us in. Who are all those children who came through the pre-operative room, whose bits and pieces are now on display? What stories do all of these pieces have to tell?

In many ways, the letters I am immersed in are like this display cases. They offer hints of stories, moments frozen in time, tantalizing glimpses into lives lived, stories told.

Come into my parlour and let me tell you about my gallstones, my asthma, my migraines, my scars, my various aches and pains. Let me tell you about me.


The case of the woman who thought from her stomach is outlined in Elizabeth A. William’s study of Philippe Pinel’s belief in the relationship between stomach disorders and nervous illnesses. The woman in question experienced numerous ills, but concluded by asserting that her sensitive stomach was the cause of her sufferings. In a very real way, her stomach expressed her self.

This leads me to consider matters of a decidedly methodological bent.

I am, in this research project, particularly intrigued by questions of speech, language and discourse; that is, in examining how it is that the body comes into language, and what this might mean for research into selves and identities that exist beyond language.

About a year ago, I made what I thought was a completely innocuous statement. At one point during a conference presentation, I suggested that the body had a language and that the body spoke. It was clear from the reactions of some audience members that this was not nearly as innocuous a comment as I had first imagined. While many were not at all bothered by the terminology and the idea of putting the body into language and imagining bodily functions in terms of speech, there was still a considerable contingent that would have none of it. This led me to think that perhaps I, too, should have a closer look at exactly what was informing my assertions, why this might be important, and how this might influence how I read and analyse the letters that form the basis of this project.

At a broad level I’m interested in considering closely the role of the body in the construction and performance of the autobiographical self, particularly in cases where the body’s narrative is all that we have available to us. This is not just, to follow ideas put forward by Philippe Lejeune, “the autobiography of those who do not write,” but, in this case, “the autobiography of those who do not – for the most part – even speak.” How might we analyse these narratives? How do we read autobiographies in the virtual absence of what we would generally understand as ‘text’?

In most of the letters that I read, the voices of the sick are quite readily available. Even in the case of letters written by others, the patient’s perspective is usually quite clearly discernible. These are patients who speak, letter writers who listen, and body stories that can, then, enter relatively easily into language.

But some letters are marked by the absence of the patient’s voice. In these letters, it is only the physical manifestation of disorder that remains. How can we analyse letters in which the body itself is the text?

One series of letters (written by three doctors) concerns the health of a young, unmarried woman, Mademoiselle XX or XXX. This patient appears to suffer from some form of nervous malady, an illness which is referred to variously as fureur, imbécilité, affections mélancoliques,  and manie. In contrast to the vast majority of letters addressed to Tissot, Mademoiselle XXX ‘speaks’ only once in the letters; we hear her actual words and ideas only once in the course of the whole correspondence. In the second letter, the doctor notes that she has expressed a desire to travel, and that this desire is so great that it has caused her profound agitation and she has lost much sleep.

As far as I can tell these are the only words she utters throughout the year of consultations. She is said to communicate; she is said to have an active mind; she is said to speak at times, but we have no idea what she says, how she says it, where she says it, or why she says it. Apart from this, she sings, laughs, trembles, convulses, faints, and stays mute, all bodily responses associated with the broad category of nervous illness.

For the most part, then, we do not have access to her ‘voice,’ to a speaking subject, if you will. She does not speak in ways that make it possible for those around her to understand. The only comments that we have are of her body’s workings. Her voice, in the absence of ‘rational discourse’, exists only in her madness, in the extra textual elements that are so present that they are no longer extra, they are, in essence, the text.

We know that Mademoiselle XXX spoke more than once but we don’t know what she said. Perhaps she just kept on reiterating her desire to travel to another region. Perhaps she said something else entirely. We know that, according to her doctors, ‘her mind was active,’ but we don’t know how this was assessed or measured. Perhaps they observed her responses to external stimuli. Perhaps she wrote. We know that she sang. Perhaps she sang with words, perhaps she only hummed tuneless melodies. We know that she laughed, shivered and experienced convulsions so strong it took 2-3 men to keep her down. Perhaps her laughter wasn’t inconsequential, perhaps her shivers were not irrational, perhaps her convulsions weren’t evidence of psychic disruption.

Perhaps they were.

There are, therefore, some things that we know, but so many more – particularly in relation to issues of language, speech and discourse, that we’ll never know.

All of this leads me to an impossible situation. How then, will I ever recover the story – the voice – of Mademoiselle XXX and others like her? As autobiographies, these letters are difficult to read, and even more difficult to analyse. We must, then, proceed with caution.

If, as Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson have argued, discourse can be understood as the language that “produce[s] and circulate[s] knowledge” (25) about different things, then we can see the body as productive of discourse. Through its workings it produces and circulates knowledge about itself. But at the same time, we have to acknowledge that within our systems, it is only through the body’s engagement with language – and here I use language as we conventionally understand it – that the body’s workings take on meaning. 

But what happens if we take the idea of the discursive body seriously? To what extent might we be able to assert that it is through bodily function – or in this case dysfunction – that the subject comes into being; that meaning is created in her life, and in response, that her subjectivity comes into being for the doctors. The question is, are we equipped to handle such forms of subjectivity?

Finally managed to find time to read Joan Sherwood’s fascinating new book on the intertwined history of syphilis and wet nursing in France. Filled with lots of details, many numbers and graphs, it offers great insight into the wet nursing industry (thus building on Sussman’s work from the 1980s) but takes it much further, by showing just how deeply implicated wet nursing was in the medical industry of the period. The wet nurse was, for all intents and purposes, an instrument of medical technology – a “living tool” whose body “served as instruments for the advancement of medical science” (75).

At an ethical level, this is grotesque. And as one schooled in Foucauldian relations of power, these ethical challenges are insurmountable. But what I find most intriguing about this study is Sherwood’s ability to bring the perspectives of doctors into conversation with the responses of nurses, thus providing me, as a reader, with a window into the nature of that encounter. Power, as we see here, does not always flow one way. It is complex and frustratingly amorphous. Thus, while doctors dictated certain behaviours and procedures and families engaged in subterfuge in order to hire nurses, it is abundantly clear that many of the nurses in question resisted and refused. Some escaped. Some were cranky. Some misbehaved. One went mad. And others, in the nineteenth century, launched legal challenges. In other words, many weren’t willing to play the game and when force to do so, were not afraid to assert their rights to fair and just treatment. The politics of lactation – and the role of the female body in the production of milk – are fascinating and could keep me occupied for years.

Time to reread Nathoo and Ostry’s The One Best Way?: Breastfeeding History, Politics, and Policy in Canada

Wetnurses, that is.

An undated letter in the Fonds Tissot recounts the sorry tale of a 22 month old who contracted syphilis from one of his wetnurses. Wetnurse number 1 lasted 22 days, before the baby boy was struck with stomach pains and green bowel movements. The second lasted 8 or 9 months and was let go when the child came down with an infection. The third was discharged two months later. And then we come to the fourth. She was found to have syphilis and only stayed eight days. You’d have thought that was too little time to pass on any infection, but it was not to be: the infant was soon covered in small blisters, which caused much suffering. Wetnurses 5 and 6 could not solve the problem. Under wetnurse 5’s care, the infant did not urinate for 12 hours. Under Wetnurse 6, he developed a sort of cradle cap which was very itchy and caused the infant much distress. But there were other problems with #6. She didn’t appear to have enough milk and the child suckled for hours on end. Wetnurse 7 gave so much milk that she fell ill. And now, finally, there were 8.

After this long narrative of hirings and firings, I really want to know what happened to nurse 8. Was she replaced by 9, 10, 11…. when the going got tough?  Or did things start to improve for the child, thus securing nurse 8’s  employment with this family? If this narrative tells us anything, it is that wetnursing was a profoundly insecure profession. Any issue experienced by the child – from the green bowel movements (relatively common in newborns), to a form of cradle cap, to milk supply…. and  syphilis … were cause for immediate dismissal. And there appears to have been little consideration given to the possibility that the midwife herself could contract syphilis from the child.

And what happened to the child? At the end of the letter, we learn that he has continued to grow and that he has four teeth. Did he manage to develop beyond the age of five? Did he grow into an adult?