Monthly Archives: December 2014

Yesterday, I wrote about historical heartbeats, and about the possibility of touching the past. But there’s been something even more fascinating (well, to me) rolling around in my head: the experience of a new heart beating.

A recent scientific study examined the lived experience of heart transplant. Drawing on stories they had heard about how individuals coped and lived with their new hearts, researchers designed a phenomenological study to interrogate the meanings of living with a new heart. Interestingly, medical researchers have apparently not put much focus on this area of research. For doctors, new hearts are like any other new organs: living tissue and nothing more. Doctors see bodies as a puzzle to be solved and not so much as the material substance of lived experience.

I operate from the opposite perspective: I’m much more interested in the puzzle of human lived experience than I am in the puzzle of organic tissue. Sure, that’s an important puzzle, but for me it’s much more important to figure out how we live with the meanings we invest in those tissues. How does the body shape identity? How do tissues, organs, bones, blood, cells, marrow shape who we are?

According to this most recent study, heart transplant results in significant “identity disruption” for recipients. Heart transplants affect not only how they experience their bodies, but also how they imagine the donors. More specifically, it demonstrates that individuals who have had heart transplants sometimes feel as though they are doubly embodied, their very selves shaped by the self who once owned the heart they now possess.

The interview comments from study participants are intriguing:

 “My heart is like it’s mine and somebody else” (9)

“… I felt I had an alien thing in me, or somebody else [heart]…. I missed my old heart.” (10)

“I feel as if another person’s spirit is in me.” (10)

“… because I have somebody else’s organ, and so to a certain point it is almost like a two-in-one …” (10)

These comments reveal some of the split subjectivity that has marked feminist theorizing in the area of pregnancy and childbirth (thinking here of the work of Iris Marion Young, Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous, among others), and certainly demonstrate that an approach centred on organ rejection is not nearly enough.

But it’s also important on another level, in that it points to the centrality of the body in the way that we understand our very selves. As the researchers argue, “our work with transplant recipients insists that the phenomenological self is always embodied, and that embodiment is undeniably the continuing condition of being a self at all” (13).


In the news this week: historical heart beats – including the recorded and recovered heartbeat of a Frenchman born in 1769! Just like the photo  that returned me to the eighteenth century, so too does this heartbeat take me back to what has, for a long time now, been “my” era.

One of the fascinating things that I’ve found about studying embodiment is how people’s perceptions of their bodies have shifted across time and space. An eighteenth-century body may have looked very much like a twenty-first century body, but it was not at all experienced the same way. Bodily workings are never just neutral things; it’s never just about tissues and organs and blood flows. Rather, it’s about the meanings that we attach to all of these things. And those meanings emerge in the ways that we understand and live our lives. Eighteenth-century people lived in a completely different world. They dressed in a completely different way (wigs, wigs and more wigs!). They moved through their days in different patterns (no showers! My 9-year-old would be delighted). They ate different foods (although Tissot regularly counsels a diet of moderation….). They sat on different furniture. Their belief systems were different.

Unsurprisingly, their bodily understandings were different, too.

We can laugh at what they thought about their bodies. We can chuckle when we learn that one suffering individual thought his problems were caused by excessive masturbation. We can laugh at what doctors and scientists believed, too. What, indeed, was Tissot thinking when he argued that menstrual blood transformed into breast milk during pregnancy?

But if we’re being honest with ourselves, then we need to laugh at our own beliefs and understandings as well. As Lauren Slater, in Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, reminds us: “Illness, medicine itself, is the ultimate narrative; there is no truth there, as diagnoses come in and out of vogue, as fast as yearly fashions.” (221). What will researchers giggle about two centuries from today?

So why does it matter that we can hear the heartbeat of a 100-year-old Frenchman born in 1769? What can that tell us? Why might it matter? To me, it matters in the way that archival materials matter. The way that historical buildings, paintings, furniture, streets, cups, and teapots matter. They give those of us interested in the stories of the past something to hold onto. Something tangible to touch, to hold … a space through which we can imagine the materiality of past lives.

A heartbeat reminds me that these were real people. That they lived, loved, raged, dreamt, and died. And those tangible reminders are important.

I’m a huge fan of historical photographs, from the box of “Instant Ancestors” my mom and I came across in a second hand bookstore in London, Ontario, to the 1950s baby photo buried in the middle of an interlibrary loan I once picked up at the library, to the photos that grace the walls of local historical societies and tell stories of communities and families and histories and practices, and finally, to those in my collections: the online family tree curated by a cousin, the photos that fill my albums, and those on our wall of ancestors – a collection of sepia prints featuring serious and carefully-arranged family members standing dutifully for the camera.

There are stories in photos. Stories that written records can’t always tell. Stories that come from the body. From the way that a camera captures an arrangement. From dress. From the backgrounds.

Meanings in historical photographs aren’t fixed. They change every time you look at them; they shift with every new bit of information you might come across. Move the photos around and new stories burble to the surface.

And I suppose that’s what artist Julie Cockburn is doing with her photos. She’s using them to tell stories, excavating the narratives that emerge when the historical image encounters the present period. But I can’t say that I’m fully convinced. It’s almost as if, in her tellings, she’s fixed the narratives. They’re glued – or rather, stitched – in place. And while I can absolutely accept that works of art are open to interpretation, I’m more concerned with the photograph that inspired the art. In these new interpretations, it’s almost as if the photograph itself – as a fluid, mobile text – has ceased to exist. Instead, it’s become something else entirely.

There’s cleverness here. Definitely. But I also find them troubling. And I’m not entirely sure why.

Mental health has been all over the mainstream media in the past few months. Workplace stress. Mental health among students. Mental illness and criminal activity. The suicide of Robin Williams. Lack of funding for mental health. I could link in endless articles from newspapers around the globe.

It’s a conversation that’s long overdue, really and it’s good that something is happening, but at the moment, it’s almost as if it’s the flavour of the month, having taken over where earlier public health conversations about dementia, breast cancer, obesity, euthanasia, chronic pain, abortion – you name it – left off.

And perhaps I’m cynical, but I can’t help but wonder how long will this particular conversation will last. I wonder who is actually listening. I wonder who is learning. I wonder how meaningful these conversations will be. I wonder if they’ll just scratch the surface of something that is much more complex, so complex, in fact, that it can’t ever really be examined on its own, but rather, as part of a bigger social, cultural, historical and political picture. And I wonder if these conversations will fade once a new flavour of the month emerges.

Because as this story, in last week’s New York Times demonstrates, there’s so much work still to be done. Over a century, some 55000 inmates of New York’s psychiatric hospitals died and were buried on hospital grounds. All that remains of them are numbered markers, if even that. As the article explains: This numerical system, used by other states as well, was apparently meant to spare the living and the dead from the shame of one’s surname etched in stone in a psychiatric hospital cemetery.”

But the continued stigma around mental illness – a stigma that enforced anonymity by number in the first place – continues to shape current practice. According to state law, there is no way to give names to these numbers, or to the thousands of anonymous plots scattered across New York state. And, if the comments in the article are reflective of the state’s general approach, then there appears to be no real interest in changing the situation.

And yet, this continued silence has political and social relevance. As Larry Fricks, the chairman of the National Memorial of Recovered Dignity project, has stated: “There is something embedded deep in our belief system that when people die, you show respect.”

If we can’t even name people suffering from mental illness. If we have reduced them to numbers. To markers sold for scrap metal. To institutions whose stories are kept hidden away, even in the face of advocacy for change… then what stories can we tell?