On Anatomical Liberation

One thing Maddy and I do have in common is that we were both introduced to sex by jerks with a taste for pubescent-bodied girls.

On Anatomical Liberation
Tea, cake, a nap in Grantchester, England, in 1998, in a photo taken by my spouse.

My protagonist and I are not exactly alike. Besides being born about ten years after me, she’s an amateur gymnast with excellent posture, whereas I am famously stiff and slouchy. One day my personal trainer and I were talking about porn, and he observed that men tend to seek out what they can’t get at home. He then suggested that my spouse must watch porn with very limber women.

But one thing Maddy and I do have in common is that we were both introduced to sex by jerks with a taste for pubescent-bodied girls. And while I had thought I had worked that all out for myself many years ago – thanks in part to working with a good therapist and later marrying an excellent lover – working on the mystery series for the last five years has been like peeking through the window of the house in which I grew up, seeing features I had either forgotten or never really noticed.

It took me a book and a half, for example, to realize something about my early scholarship. I’d always thought the first ten years of my work in history of medicine and science – on the medical and scientific treatment of people born with norm-challenging conditions like intersex and conjoined twinning – had nothing much to do with my identity, beyond simply my biological curiosity and my discomfort with the fact that my mother had once nicknamed me “the normal one” among us four siblings.

But working on the book that comes chronologically first in the series, I realized that Maddy’s dissertation work – which mirrored my own – was fundamentally about who controls what body. And that her interest in the question of who “owns” what body – of anatomical power structures – stemmed from her early sexual experience with The Jerk.

For years, I’ve been ambivalent about humanities scholars who have centered their Ph.D. dissertation work on their own psychosocial issues, particularly when it has involved auto-ethnography. Such work has always seemed to me too personal to count as scholarship, too self-centered to take on the magnanimity required of the fully engaged researcher.

Well, I feel a little silly, thirty years on, realizing I had been – at least to some extent – doing a little extra therapy in the archives.

An ex-Catholic atheist like me, Maddy copes with the issue of retaking her body partly by leaning into hedonism; she shamelessly enjoys exquisite food when she can get it, sweet sex, the sun on her face, a stretched-out-all-the-way midday nap, kayaking alone on a wild river, and the feeling of a fast run on campus. But here, again, until these books, I had never really thought about the ways I have embraced physicality, like her, as seized liberty.

The most interesting aspect of all this has been watching Maddy react to people’s assumptions about this part of her deep history. In the second book in the chronology, I found myself writing this:

“Listen,” she said, in a firm and slightly angry voice. “I realized something, along the way—that anyone I were to tell my story to, about The Jerk, they wanted me to be a permanently damaged little thing. Well, everyone except the therapist. My being a permanently damaged piece of discarded sexual trash would somehow serve their sense of justice—their need for justice.”

He looked at her confused. She went on.

“They could believe that even if The Jerk were never brought to justice, by leaving me horribly damaged, their world would still make sense. Evil must beget permanent harm! An evil man like him must lead to a permanently damaged girl! I must be a permanent wreck. Only good experiences beget well people. So, I had to be a mess, because that made them feel good. It fit their stories.”

She wanted to stand up and do a handstand, but she resisted.

“Well,” Maddy continued, “you know what? I didn’t need to be sacrificed to other people’s senses of justice that way. I didn’t need to be permanently harmed just so they could feel like they could trust the world’s moral mechanisms. Fuck that. So, I mostly just didn’t tell people what had happened. And I moved on with my life, including my sexual life, as if I still had myself. I don’t tell most people. And not because I am ashamed. I am not ashamed.”

There’s a squirrel I’ve been feeding for at least two years, a fellow I call Charlie. Against the odds, Charlie has survived having a very damaged right arm. For the first year he was coming to the back door, he couldn’t use that limb much at all. These days, it’s still atrophied and stiff, but he manages to use it – to hold and eat the peanuts I give him, even to climb trees and our brick wall again, a feat that requires all four of his appendages.

Charlie is a strange color, though. We have three kinds of squirrels here in East Lansing: tiny red squirrels; medium-sized black squirrels; and the larger fox squirrels that typically range in color from light brown to a kind of orange. Charlie appears by size and form to be a fox squirrel. But his dark brownish coat is mottled with gray in a way that makes him quite ugly. I suspect the coloring is the result of the stress of living with this injury.

With late spring upon us, I’m hanging out on the front porch a lot, which means Charlie is with me a fair bit, begging peanuts off me, as are Ralph (black) and Big Mama (a pregnant fox squirrel). Like the other squirrels, Charlie fills himself up and then briefly sleeps off in the sun the feeling of satiation. He picks a spot near me, and I enjoy watching him sleep, the wisps of his tail blowing lightly in the breezes.

I’ve been asking myself if Charlie is “a survivor,” and if that’s what I am. But that term has never seemed to fit either of us. We act like the other squirrels: we eat a lot of peanuts, and sleep it off in the sun. It’s true that we never sleep long, but we do sleep, and let our tails blow.

Charlie and I feel, paired, not like “survivors,” but more like injured pragmatists. What’s the difference?

I think it is that the survivor is forever in the dialectic with her jerk, the cause of her injury. To be a survivor is to have, at your core, something you had to survive. The jerk is therefor always in your core.

The injured pragmatist is in dialogue, instead, with the world as it now is.

I recognize that there are girls and women (and boys and men, too) who are necessarily survivors, people who are not as fortunate as I am in being able to take their bodies back, people who do not have the liberty of atheism allowing them to employ hedonism as a route to personal justice.

Yet, as I read what my fingers write in these novels, and hang out with Charlie, I think this is not often enough a third option presented to the victims or survivors – a kind of anatomical freedom that is very much about the present.

We are just coming into the season where the garlic scapes will be ready soon. They are exquisite when fried up with a fresh egg from the farmer here who lets her chickens run all around.