When I first started thinking that I needed to write a book about women’s health, my questions were too big and the canon too small to define what it should be about. Where to start in a world that knew so little about female biology, that made a taboo of subjects relating to menstruation, desire, pleasure or anything to do with female sex organs? I eventually settled on an idea that focused on pain – because I was in pain, so often – although it shape-shifted constantly. During the research and writing process I kept finding there was more to write, more ideas to explore, other books to be written.
By the time Pain and Prejudice was released in Australia in 2019, Maya Dusenbery’s Doing Harm, Angela Saini’s Inferior, Nina Brochmann and Ellen Stokken Dahl’s The Wonder Down Under and Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women had all been published, and Jennifer Brea’s documentary Unrest had been released. And yet there was still more to discover.
Katerina Bryant’s Hysteria and Kylie Maslen’s Show Me Where It Hurts are not just life affirming for people who have lived with ill-defined maladies and doubt; they are life changing. Each book taught me new lessons and confirmed my own experiences of the healthcare system. Both Bryant and Maslen endure long searches for answers and searingly show that the power of a diagnosis is not the tragedy of knowing you’re ill but the triumph of confirming you’re not crazy – even if you have a mental illness.
As Bryant clings to the hope of one diagnosis over another, I found my heart breaking, wanting to yell at the pages: “No matter what your diagnosis, your symptoms are real!” She traces the diagnosis of hysteria from the Victorian era to its modern equivalents, and lets the reader into her innermost battle about what it means if she is essentially diagnosed with a modern form of “being a difficult woman”. And this is the catastrophe about medicine’s lack of knowledge of female biology: we don’t know what we don’t know. As Dr Nancy Klimas says in Unrest, multiple sclerosis “was called hysterical paralysis right up to the day they invented a CAT scan machine” and white spots of demyelination could be viewed on the brain. Migraine and fibromyalgia followed similar paths. Who knows what other illness we are yet to define, yet to see, yet to acknowledge?
Maslen gets not one but numerous diagnoses, none of which have a cure. Bryant’s book is cerebral and dreamlike, reflecting the seizures she is learning to live with, while Maslen’s book is sharp and defiant, told through a prism of pop culture and delivered with a punch, reinforcing the debilitating pain that so often consumes her.
Both books address the financial effects of chronic illness, a topic rarely discussed and yet so significant for anyone experiencing the crushing poverty of being sick. And yet we are the lucky ones. It’s no coincidence that we are three middle-class, white women who have been able to access the resources and support required to write books. So many gender diverse people and women of colour never get a diagnosis and are left to suffer, with no medical support, worsening symptoms and a social safety net not fit for purpose.
These books are building blocks towards a more comprehensive knowledge and self awareness of what it means to be “sick” and in doubt about what’s wrong.
Katerina Bryant’s Hysteria and Kylie Maslen’s Show Me Where It Hurts are essential reading. Please join us as we discuss medicine’s lack of knowledge and interest in half of the population, and how healthcare systems disincentivise the good treatment of women’s health issues.
Guardian Australia’s next book club will be held at 1pm on Thursday 17 September 2020 over Zoom, hosted by Australia At Home. To register click here, or stay tuned for the video highlights.
• If you have a question you’d like to ask the authors, add it to the comments below – or join us on Zoom.