Hystory, An Art Object

I followed the doctor down the yellow hall. He was explaining something but I wasn’t listening. I was thinking about the doorways we kept passing and how each one had a glass window woven with a mesh of metal wires. I was thinking about how a face might look through the window—instantly diced into tiny blocks. That was how the artist Chuck Close painted portraits and I was obsessed with him. If you were his model, he graphed you into bite-size pieces, each square a part of the whole. 

I imagined replacing the doctor with Chuck Close, and instead of descending into the hospital, we were heading to his art studio. There, I would sit shyly for Chuck while he painted a rendition of my face, dabbing bold colors onto the grid he’d mapped on the canvas. Chuck would use turquoise, such an unlikely color, because he wanted to show me that everything, even the most unusual, has its place. Imagine someone who could see you like that, with every intricate detail and every versatile hue in your complexion, someone who would value you for just that—your own plain face.

Dad had eyed my long exacting fingers and the orange clay faces I brought home from ceramics class. He noticed how careful I was to individuate the eyelashes and how deliberately I sculpted the hillcrests of the cheeks. I should be a plastic surgeon, Dad said, and be a doctor like him, only different. He worked from behind screens mostly, scanning x-rays and threading little bubbles into blocked arteries. As a plastic surgeon, he explained I could help people feel more beautiful, make a good living, and continue to be artful with my hands.

But Dad didn’t know that I would never follow in his footsteps. I detested modern medicine. I was suspicious of pharmaceuticals and distrustful of suddenly conclusive studies on this or that lifestyle, seen through the narrow lens of the latest science. I associated the medical industry with other misguided and ill-informed capitalist entities like the FDA and the EPA. Medical school was absolutely nowhere in the future I had dreamed for myself. But because I didn’t say these things aloud, Dad arranged for a surgeon friend of his to show me around the hospital.

The hall smelled bitter with antiseptic. The lights flickered in the fluorescent overheads as I followed the doctor to pathology. We were after a prize. The doctor and I slipped through the swinging doors to a room abuzz with machine sounds. The air was chilly and this is how I remember it—but how could it be so? I remember a plexiglass case, and inside it a vase—something you’d see in a fancy museum, like a piece of art on display, protected from the dangers of oily fingertips, the malevolence of breath, and the terrible threat of breakage.

But it wasn’t a vase. It was a bruised pear. And it was glistening.

As I remember it (but how could it be so?) the doctor removed the item and handled it as one would a kitten. He held the item and pointed out the slim neck and the puffy lipped opening, the purplish spider veins that sprawled around the bulge. He indicated the sickly yellow splotch dotted with ugly blisters like tiny black snakeheads. This, he said, had been the problem. And this was why it was here, in the pathology lab, and in his hands. This art object, this enigma. And then he unveiled the mystery of it—a uterus, pulled from the belly of a woman.

 

Memory is a slippery elixir. It lurks inside the body, weaving around tangles of nerves, sliding over ribbons of muscle, rubbing against iridescent fascia, curling its fingers into clefts of the brain, misting the delicate strata of the eyes, whispering through the small hollows of the ears, rewriting our stories.

In college, I learned about the wandering uterus and I thought back to that day in the yellow hospital. How we try to make sense of an illness by naming it. How we try to make a body healthy by removing the sickness. We look at a uterus removed and see it isolated in a man’s world and somehow that is supposed to make sense. Men since ancient Greece have been trying to make sense of the uterus. It was seen for thousands of years as an entity, a roaming vessel in a woman’s body, the scapegoat for her unruliness. If a woman acted out of order she was diagnosed with madness, with hysteria, and thought to have the disorder: wandering uterus. The belief then was that the uterus was a balloon that sometimes lost its perch atop her cervix to float wayward in the woman’s body, to clog her diaphragm, or jam her throat, or infect her brain with its maleficence. All the while throwing off the woman’s emotional navigation with its unchecked tourism of her interior. A beast within a beast, that’s what they said about it. When the uterus went rogue, an ordinary woman became a beast.

This would become my fate. The terminology changed, the anatomy understood under different terms, but the sentiment was the same. The woman is stamped fulminant and avoided as if riddled with danger and contagion. When I was eighteen, my behavior began to be unreliable. I was too emotional, unable to stop crying, hiding a wild panic within, and sometimes felt like I was living outside of my body.

Sophomore year in college, my first bout of hysteria, I was sent home. To the hospital with the yellow halls.

On a medical table, they probed the secret parts of me with something like a large flashlight, a spying cyclops that reported back to them a terrain that I had never seen, a place they would investigate and evaluate and stake with their legend of terminology.

Somewhere beneath me in the basement in the depths of pathology in the sickly yellow light, the exhumed vase—the bruised pear—bobbed in their archives. When the cyclops discovered a cyst clenched in the fist of one of my ovaries, the diagnosis was deferred from psychology to physiology. Here was a plausible explanation.

Perhaps it was this small stowaway that swung me so wildly to the edges of reality. This conversation among the doctors and my parents happened at my exclusion, but I overheard it. Or maybe I imagine I overheard it. I remember lying in a gown on a gurney while they were all gathered on the other side of the door. Perhaps I misremember it through the slant of betrayal I felt. Not only betrayed, also invisible, and also objectified, which sounds like a contradiction but it isn’t.

The blip had been detected in my pelvis but there might also coincide an error in my brain. Tucked into the hollow of the MRI, this time I became the probe in the tunnel. The mechanism whizzed the contours and pulses of my brain and translated them into blotches of color. I held my breath with the scrabbling fear of a criminal. I imagined pits, white spots, and dark smudges tucked within the lobes, all my fault marks exposed on screen, one for each night of recreational drugs freshman year. This machine would see me for who I really was—a mess, a woman with a broken mind and an abnormal body who made bad choices because of her faulty wiring.

On the other side of the wall, in the imaging room, my father sat next to the neurologist. Two doctors silhouetted on an abstract painting of me, which my body was slowly revealing. It was their job to turn it into a story that would explain me.

 

Hystory. Women have stood bravely on shaky ground, with mishandled bodies, deemed unfit, gutted, erased. We are the ones who tell these stories. We are the artists who depict ourselves broken and reinvented with mystery, claiming our calluses and scars as our own.

Look at the self-portraits of Frida Kahlo. The bus accident she survived as a teen, which nearly took her life resulted in thirty-plus operations, constant pain, long bouts of bed stay, and varying states of immobility for the rest of her life. In her self-portraits, she is pinned together by tacks and held up by columns; she is a set of twins holding hands, hearts showing, one sliced; she is a baby, her adult head on the body of her infancy, nursing a milk-laden breast; she is post-miscarriage lying in a pool of blood in an iron bed, around her, floating, the small lost fetus, the snail, the fallen flower, broken pelvis, with a sense of misery flattened in the brushy industrial landscape of the background.

Being a sick-in-the-head woman is an avalanche against you. When they call you crazy you cannot defend yourself. You cannot argue that one successfully. If you are enraged, you give fodder to their case. If you slink back, you show the weakness that indicates admittance. Try to reason for the clearance of your sanity and you will be knocked out from under yourself like a tripped chair.

I went back to school, I met with a therapist, I lied to her and then I quit going. The next two years of college I was trapped in the flickering hellish landscape of my mind, which sometimes quieted to normalcy, and then raged again like the ground was boiling. I withstood paranoia, panic attacks, epic unstoppable crying jags, dissociative states, hallucinations, and a constant state of flushed sweating stammering-inside anxiety.

I kept my uterus and my ovaries, no one mentioned them again; there were no procedures. Cysts dissolve, they said. As long as my period stayed regular I was fine. My period was the least of my problems. On the outside, I looked whole: a flourishing, creative, intelligent young woman.

To the surgeon, with his large dry hands, it was material, his craft, his livelihood. Hysterectomy: the art of disassembling a woman. The cutting, stitching, and mending of flesh. Remove the illness. Make her look as she did before, as if nothing had changed. They keep her uterus in a case like a vase. An art object. A bell.

Frida paints herself anew: her piercing glare and the wild attendants she enlists to her company. Hers is the gaze of the beast, resplendent, exacting, composed. She has become what she has made of herself.

 

What my father didn’t know, and what nobody knew then, not even me, was that I would go on to study medicine. But on my own terms. After a second pinnacle of anxiety post-9/11, I left my career in the art world to study traditional Chinese medicine. I wanted to learn an earth-based, hands-on, minimalist way to be of service. Something in me knew I could guide others through pain.

There is no stigma in traditional Chinese medicine against mental illness. We fall out of attunement and break. The mind falls prey to illness as does the shoulder, the neck, the stomach, the hip. It is all the same. The energy misaligns and illness sets in. The body is malleable, it is earth, a compendium of metaphors, it changes and accepts change, so there is hope. There are ancient herbal formulas and acupuncture point prescriptions for nervous collapse, depression, hysteria, and mania, and the descriptions of these conditions are written about in stories. There is a diagnosis for when an individual climbs to the roof and removes all their clothes. There is a formula for when a person runs through the marketplace screaming and pulling at their hair. These stories are not limited to women. We are each always at the cusp of transforming into a beast.

In traditional Chinese medicine, madness isn’t attached to the uterus, but rather belongs to matters of the heart, as in the colloquialism, the heart being the hub of our feelings. That’s how it’s seen. In the heart, there’s this bell. In times of hysteria, the bell is seen to have cracked, and so the emotional body is injured, rendered out of pitch. But it can be mended. Metal smelted and soldered, hammered and pressed to the curve.

A bell mended is different from how it was before the break. A broken bell repaired holds scars. The scars of the fracture and sometimes more scars from the elements of repair. The punctures of stitching. The welt of molten metal. The mended heart reconfigures the feel and sound of attunement. The broken bell rings differently. It has a story. The entire body shifts to accommodate this new music.

Inside my body lays a version of the girl I was at that time. She is there on the gurney. She can hardly move, just a weak movement of the wrists and ankles, eyes that roll like marbles. A sort of paralysis keeps her there. She is held as a memory. She is thin as paper. She does not believe things can change. She has gotten so that she hardly thinks anything. She isn’t me anymore but she is within me, still. Shine a light through me and you will see her body translucent inside mine, superimposed, a hidden layer. She is collaged inside me, a floating see-through girl lying inside a live woman.

I am repurposing her. Transforming her into something else. Unweaving her lines. Collaging over her and around her. Layers of gesso. Now I’m building a wooden box. So that she can become a thing of beauty, an image in a Joseph Cornell assemblage. Watercolor yellow. A flash of blue. Still life of a paper girl held here, still.

She is a small near-death inside me, while the living goes on. Only this part of me belongs framed, contained.

This is the machine of my body ticking through life—navigated by a pear in my gut, a bell of a heart, a cutout paper doll, a pile of memories entangled in my sinews. In this body, as it has stretched long into adulthood, widened in motherhood, shrunk again, stepped through experiences—all the while, she is there, the paper girl, you can see her body still, and every form unfolding is different because of her presence, because the lines of her shining through change the lines of everything.

 


Liz Asch Greenhill is a visual artist, poet, and nonfiction writer. She is also an acupuncturist who helps people edit their bodies using energy medicine. Liz hosts the auditory surrealist art project “Body Land: Metaphor Medicine,” a collection of free guided visualizations for all people (on podcast apps and at Night Sky Acupuncture). She has published essays, poems, book reviews, interviews, art, and oddities in a variety of magazines, journals, and anthologies. Her stop-motion animation film, “The Love Seat,” traveled through the U.S. and Canada in gay and lesbian indie film festivals. She lives with her son in Portland, Oregon.

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