‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.’ Gospel of St Thomas
I thoroughly enjoyed the Self-portrait without Breasts event at Kings College London on February 24th. A huge thank you to Clare Brant for organizing and co-ordinating the evening so thoughtfully, and for attracting such a lovely, engaged and varied audience. I was particularly happy to take a wide range of questions, many of which I hadn’t been asked before.
One of the questions that’s haunted me since that evening went something like this: What did your experience of risk-reducing double mastectomy teach you about yourself and about your creativity? I responded by saying how going through the surgery and recovery taught me exactly how grumpy I can be (a good thing to know!) and how it underlined for me that writing is an essential part of my life. Writing is how I am in the world, how I think. I have to write to live. In this sense it is my vocation. And, post-operative or not, I’m also grumpy if I’m not writing.
But I was longing to speak of something else too, in answering that question. Something that is deep at the core of me. Something which has been difficult to speak about and difficult for the world to hear. To expand on this properly, I would need a lot more time, and a different kind of space. I hope to have that time and space in the future. Here is something of it, for now.
I wanted to speak about how the physical numbness after surgery brought me to an extraordinary learning, an unexpected new knowing of myself, which in turn I’ve followed and written through another project – a prose memoir entitled The Papermaker.
This is what happened: after the operation I found myself full of fear and loathing of my body’s numb areas, which were extensive.
It took me weeks to work out what was going on, to understand what this disgust represented and how to approach it. I discovered that the disgust expressed my horror of a known psychological numbness, which in my weakened and transformed physical state was very apparent and urgent to me. I knew that this psychological numbness must be attended to, even though I was ignorant of how I would do this and of what that process could mean.
My numbness had developed in protective layers around memories of sexual abuse as a child. The numbness had been a marvellous coping mechanism for years, decades, but now I was at a new crisis. I needed help. As soon as I was fully recovered from the double mastectomy, I sought the right psychotherapist and began the next round of hard work!
That was seven years ago. In this time, I have lived the most exciting, gruelling, profoundly creative and uplifting phase of my life. I have slowly brought most of the numb parts back to sensation. I have dispelled vast tracts of fear and disgust. I have grown. I have reclaimed many areas of myself previously lost in the numbness. I have even begun to make peace with the (now deceased) person responsible for my injuries. And I have written the book that explores these and many other matters.
This memoir was the hardest (but, for me, the most necessary) thing to make and now it seems to be the hardest thing to place – it is still looking for a publisher after nearly a year of an excellent agent sending it out and about to excellent and appreciative editors and publishers. I am deeply proud of this book. It is good – I’ve had enough insightful comments from intelligent and perceptive readers to know this. Recently it was placed in the top three in the Mslexia Memoir Competition.
I would like to see my memoir well published. I had thought that as time went on I might feel less ardent about this aim. Instead I find myself more and more determined.
Taboo and shame are still at work. We need more conversations about why and how child sex abuse happens, we need to understand it in order to stop it and prevent it. I want to take part in those conversations.
So, here is the question again. What did your experience of risk-reducing double mastectomy teach you about yourself and about your creativity?
And to respond again. The experience taught me how to face pain, how to summon patience and courage. It taught me how to write from my core. It taught me that my creativity is central to my life, to living. It taught me that good writing deserves and needs an audience, that I am proud of what I have done and made. It taught me how to be in the world and feel comfortable. It taught me to carry on, and carry on.