In my chapter “Fragile Connections” in the book I am writing, Living a Feminist Life, I have been trying to think through the implications of how the histories that leave us fragile are often the histories that bring us to feminism.
Fragility: the quality of being easily breakable. We are all fragile; some of us are more fragile than others.
Can we value what is deemed broken? Can we appreciate those bodies, those things, which are deemed to have bits and pieces missing?
A history of breaking can be a history of making.
Things can happen; accidents can happen. Hap happens. We can be thrown by what we come up against.
In my earlier post on fragility I shared Ann Oakley’s story of breaking her hand in her wise book, Fractured: Adventures of a Broken Body (2007).
I have a story. Let me give you the bones of it.
One time, I was in New York at the gym and I was joking with somebody. I said: “I have never broken a bone.” I said: “I don’t think my bones are breakable.” I was joking around, being silly; it was a silly thing to say. And then not more than a week later I fell down and broke something. I am not saying that saying this led to that; but it was an uncanny feeling of having in some way brought something about. That break did feel like fate! However it happened, the world intruded: you can be forced by circumstances to realise what you already know. I was breakable. We all are.
However it happened, this is what happened: I fell on the hard stone floor of the bathroom. An encounter with stones can break your bones. Words too can hurt you.
I managed to get myself up and into bed but woke up later night unable to move. I had arrived in New York fairly recently and I had no one with me, but luckily my mobile phone was by my side. I was able to ring for help. They had to break the door down to get me out and down four flights of stairs.
I had fractured my pelvis. The doctor who first treated me was a bit disdainful, saying it shouldn’t be too painful. It was painful. And it also meant for two months or so using crutches; and some of the time when I travelled or when I was in a supermarket, I used a wheel chair.
Becoming conscious of being breakable by breaking something: in experiencing your body differently, or in having a different body to experience, you experience the world differently. I understood this disability to be temporary, as something I would pass through, which I have no doubt framed the situation. But despite the sense of passing through a disabled body, I learnt how disability is worldly because I came up against the world; the different ways you are treated, the opening of doors, concerned faces, the closing of doors, rigid indifference.
I began to feel the little bumps on the street, little bumps I had even noticed before. It felt like I kept bumping into the street. Bumps became walls in the sense they took a huge amount of energy to get over or to get around.
Slow; heavy; down.
The little bumps I had not noticed before.
My mother is disabled; she became ill with transverse myelitis just after I was born. She has become progressively less mobile over time; and now, she can barely walk.
When I was growing up my mother’s condition was kept a secret. We were not told about it. We knew she couldn’t do certain things, or we even thought even she wouldn’t do certain things, but we were never told why: there was secrecy; there was silence. It is a shame that there was such shame. But shame is part of this history. I experienced her difficulties as impediments to my own existence as much as hers: say of not having a mother come to a sporting event when other mothers turned up.
So often: a history of breaking is also a history of secrets, of what is not revealed, including what is behind something, what could have helped to explain something: some difference, some deviation.
When I fractured my pelvis, it did change how I related to my mother’s situation. It is not that before I had no empathy with her pain: I wrote about how I learnt about pain through becoming a witness to her pain in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004). Rather a breaking became a connection, a retrospective realization of how a body is not given room by a world, how for some, what are ordinary bumps, for others, are walls.
I learnt too something about myself as a researcher, a writer, a person. I began to ask myself why, despite having written on intimacies of bodies and worlds, I had hardly reflected upon disability at all. I began to think more about my able-bodied privilege, which is not to say, I have thought about it enough: I have not. It is easy for me to forget to think about it, which is what makes a privilege a privilege: the experiences you are protected from having; the thoughts you do not have to think. You do not need to notice what allows you to progress, or what eases a progression. Disability was behind me, at the back of my consciousness, and it is still behind me, because being able-bodied allows me not to bring it to the front.
This staying behind was despite having a disabled mother; or perhaps there might even be a “because” here as there is pain there.
We can share our stories, our stories of breaking, of being broken, as stories that are bound up with our most intimate connections with others.
This post is dedicated to all those who participated in our twitter discussion of Feminist Hurt, Feminism Hurts (storified here). Thank you. I hope to keep learning from you.
Thank you so much for this essay and reflection. Sara. I have thought of able-bodied privilege (my own) in fragmented ways through the years but your meditations really brought this to the fore for me–as I navigate MINOR (I mean MINOR) pain as I progress through the world, with relative ease. You remind me to really weave in integral ways what fragility, break-ability means in our pedagogies, writings, and ofcourse ways of being. (And you have made me think of fragilities anew, in general!) Anik Dhonobad, again.
The shame of mental illness amplifies the affect, I think. How many kids are told that their sick parent is just tired all the time?
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