Post Road Magazine #24

Body Without Organs

Martha Stoddard Holmes

Twenty-five years after my first postmodern theory course, and nearly ten years after having all of my reproductive organs removed, I feel as if I finally understand what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari meant when they wrote (maddeningly, elusively) about the foundational importance to late twentieth-century literary texts of the concept of the "body without organs." But for me, the body without organs is not an idea, but a reality.

I am a woman who keeps removing body parts: fallopian tubes, ovaries, uterus, cervix, omentum, appendix—to keep myself alive. Body as lifeboat: who stays on board? I feel flat, sleek, swift, pared, and honed; gutted but glad; stripped, drawn, taut. I like the sensations, but also feel that I've gone from one state of theoretical weirdness to another. From not really being a woman because I couldn't get pregnant to not being a woman because I lack most of the defining organs of femininity. Each one a timebomb or a seed. With these organs gone, I have fewer places for death to grow. The more of them taken out, the cleaner I feel.

But this lightness is a mixed blessing. Before, I knew where to pay attention, as I could when my baby was small, when I carried him in a sling close to my body and could check, so easily, to see how he was. Now the sling is empty: I don't know where to touch or check or test to know if I'm still okay. Trouble (recurrence) can pop up anywhere. People imagine ovarian cancer is a death sentence. I know I assumed that, the first time I googled the disease after my diagnosis. I thought I was doomed: that clear, unjust, tragic narrative of blighted youth and motherless children got me through the first few rounds of chemo, as I tried to project a pale, saintly radiance to all who encountered me. But what happens when you get through round six and you don't die? Who are you then? Who are you now, back to work with all your hair grown back and your eyebrows thickening?

Ten years past my cancer surgery, I return to that place of forgetting my ovaries, to the point that I only remember that I don't have them when I wake from a dream of being pregnant and realize how completely impossible that dream is now.

I wonder who I am without a social body to record this in-between space and make my narrative a collaborative one, written with the help of others looking and staring and talking and whispering and yes, in the blatant space of the clinic where we can assume we are all damaged in some way and thus do not have to pretend.

Fredric Jameson says that history is "what hurts." I think the corollary is also true. So many things never register as personal or social histo-ry simply because they don't hurt: we feel nothing, and no one feels for us. Torn between trying to remember and wanting to forget, forgetting pulls harder, and takes us under. The forgetting is difficult. It is strange to be in a place where my oncologist's office has forgotten to remind me that I have forgotten to make my annual appointment, when I do not really know where I exist in the world of previvors, survivors, the dying and the dead.

Perhaps partly for this reason, I love the legibility of these scars that record my life as a body without organs. Striding across the beach in a sturdy, boyish bikini to jump in the waves, I remember Winnie D., a hippie mother in my small college town in New Hampshire, eight months pregnant or more, standing and laughing on the beach of the swimming pond, offering her belly to the sun. She was riveting, remarkable next to the other mothers with her long grey-streaked hair, her tiny bikini, her divorce and second marriage to Peter, a wildly handsome artist—her embodied confirmation of having had sex, and the sexiness of her swollen belly.

I think of her now when I look down at myself in my own bikini, my body basically boring but for the fascination of its Frankenstein-creature scars. At first my impulse was to cover them up; much as my oncologist complimented the gynecologic surgeon on having done a nice job, the sewing left my navel off center, the punctum of my assymetrical belly.

Still, I am proud to display these marks and reveal my experiences. To have a scar is to have a history.

The signifying power of fictional scars has a rich and complex power both in culture and literature. It has persisted into our day in a host of works of textual and visual culture, some tied to imagined, some to actual lives. A partial list includes Amy Tan's story "Scar," Linda Hogan's Solar Storms, the late Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face. One of the pressing issues for contemporary scholars of disability studies is the tension between the figure and the body, between metaphor and lived experience. When the indelible literary scar is interpreted solely as a metaphor for feminine pain and invalidation, it may—paradoxically—lose its power to suture the text to the actual bodies that matter.

When I look at the image of my own scars, I remember how, long ago, my grandmother would read my palms on each visit, lovingly holding my hands and tracing in them the tracks of my future, seeing and acknowledging—beholding—my creative spirit and overintense emotions from childhood moving forward into a projected young womanhood. I can read the scars that criss-cross my belly in a similar way, as the tracks of my past. The long, windy, drafty line (like a sketch, the revisions and erasures and sous-ratures are all part of the picture) intersects the bikini line seam where, years earlier, my son was pulled from my belly; below that seam, the softer lines from earlier surgeries for an ectopic pregnancy, tubal repairs, and the final excision of a torsed, dead tube lap alongside and across each other, waves in the distance. Reading these words, I see that my canvas is overgendered, a caricaturish rendering of woman as merely the sum of her reproductive organs, literalized on my flesh.

But for me, these organs are no longer there. There are only scars: the traces that remain of ovaries, uterus, fallopian tubes, cervix—organs and their helpers. Maybe this is what history is: not so much what hurts but what holds and clings to the past and its meaning, a sign of having finally become human.


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