Lena Dunham on Joy Sorman and Unnameable Female Pain

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By Lena Dunham

LIFE SCIENCES
By Joy Sorman
Translated by Lara Vergnaud

Joy Sorman’s “Life Sciences” takes an overtly political premise — the medical establishment’s inability or perhaps refusal to take seriously the physical struggles of women — and transforms it into a surreal and knife-deep work of fiction that asks: What pain can we abide, and what pain must we fight back against, even if the fight hurts more than the disease itself? In her introduction to the novel (which is Sorman’s English-language debut), Catherine Lacey writes, “Women so often carry this delusion of being innately wrong, of needing to be numbed, controlled, caged or hidden — a delusion smuggled into us in the Trojan horse of a thousand old stories.” I highlighted this and hundreds of ensuing passages, imagined writing them on note cards and placing them above my desk.

Translated by Lara Vergnaud into prose that is both deceptively simple and playfully archaic, Sorman’s story — among the first to tackle illness as metaphor, as birthright and as feminist rebellion — follows Ninon Moise, a Parisian teenager whose “family tree is a history of France and pathology as shown by a myriad of extraordinary medical cases — a proliferating misfortune that, from 1518 to the 2010s, mutated with every birth, like a virus always faster than the humans it poisons, faster than progress or science.” As the youngest in this plagued maternal lineage, Ninon takes an almost academic interest in understanding the fate she knows is coming for her — one that will release its grip on her only if she can wrap her head around it.

Unlike her mother and grandmother, Ninon refuses to be condescended to by a patriarchal medical establishment that has told her family their spiderweb of ailments — which read like the side effect warning on a bottle of antidepressants — are not physical, but harbingers of madness. She also asks the question her foremothers have held back: Is procreation a selfish folly, a madness in and of itself? In a world where the pressures and pursuit (at any cost) of reproduction have become a billion-dollar industry, this becomes a provocative sub-theme. There would be no Ninon to fear the onset of tingling skin or paranoia had her mother simply closed her heart to the idea of a child. But then, isn’t breeding out illness just a form of eugenics disguised as concern?

Sorman vividly describes how the imagination can be warped by the body’s misfiring. As a child Ninon was uninterested in fables or fairy tales, obsessed instead with symptoms. At night her mother, Esther, would “unroll the endless ribbon of the genealogical fable: … cases of trance and insanity, visual and auditory hallucinations, mental disorders and uterine aggressions treated with trepanning and bleedings, bodies that escape, overflow, rave.” If those responsible for listening to and taking care of you do not do so, chances are you’ll end up repeating over and over in your head all the little slights nature has leveled against you, forever. Bitterness might not win you any friends, but it comes unbidden, a symptom in and of itself.

In the process of investigating her family tragedy, Ninon finds something like independence: through sex and cigarettes, yes, but really through the act of demanding care. And when she realizes that care is not coming via the establishment, she offers it to herself. By the end, Sorman writes, “Ninon Moise, 20 years old, was brought into this world, grew up, got sick, got better, got tattooed, knew love, and now the sun is peeking into the studio skylight.” It’s a line that shook me to my core with recognition, as I remembered branding my own sick body with images that meant freedom to me, finding safety in new kinds of pain — be it the buzz of a needle on my skin, rejection from a lover or pushing my body to extremes I knew it couldn’t handle.

It is impossible for me to read or review this book without grappling with my history of illness. Genetic disease. Disease considered both invisible and feminized by the men in white coats I was told would cure me but who only made me sicker, adding a new symptom while they were at it: hot rage. Sorman’s alternative history of female malady offers both a horrific dose of truth and a comforting alternative to the stories sick women have told ourselves since time began. We have often been ignored or worse: called crazy, lobotomized or forcibly sterilized. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, you’re waiting on hind legs for the moment it will. And our generational tales stay with us: I think of my grandmother, who had endometriosis, delivering a child at half term into the toilet and burying him by herself. I think of my great-grandmother, living alone in a house at the top of a hill, self-medicating with alcohol and falling to her death, nobody left to catch her. I think of myself as Ninon, asking the questions and offering myself the answers and in so doing procuring a ticket to a certain strained freedom.

In the essay “On Being Ill,” Virginia Woolf — who was often bed-bound with an unnamed physical condition that could have contributed to her depression — wrote: “Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings … it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.” Sorman takes this almost as a dare, and then goes a step further: Illness, especially without empathy, plunges us so close to oblivion that when we return, what we’ve seen must be said.

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