What to Read When You’re Living in a Female Body
As a young girl, I was afraid of becoming a woman. The development that came with puberty filled me with shame, and I quickly learned that the male appetite for female bodies was dangerously insatiable. No one taught me how to honor the needs of my corporeal self, to see it as beautiful, or to protect it from harm, and so as a teen, I tried to become all mind. I studied and read and thought and ignored my physical being.
I wanted to escape my female vulnerability. In my attempt to avoid harm, I neglected to consider women’s abundant psychological and physical resilience. It was only when I began reading memoirs by women writers that I started to see the female body as a wondrous thing, worthy of close, respectful attention. Through these memoirs, I came to understand that the experiences of our flesh matter deeply.
I found inspiration and validation for my first book, Mercy: A Memoir of Medical Trauma and True Crime Obsession, in the following titles.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
I first encountered this astonishing memoir in a college course on women’s autobiography. What does a white girl growing up in Vermont during the 1980s have in common with a black girl facing the indignities and the terror of racism in Arkansas during the 1930s? Our female bodies, vulnerable to judgment and transgression. Maya believes she doesn’t physically measure up to other girls, black or white, and despite our vastly different circumstances, I related to her insecurities about the way she looks. When I read the scene in which Maya’s grandmother unthinkingly causes Maya a wounding moment of sexual shame, I knew I could write about the sexual shame I experienced in my own family. I realized I had the right to do so.
Remembering the Bone House by Nancy Mairs
I first read this book in that same life-altering college course on women’s autobiography, and I’ve been rereading it for three decades. Mairs, a self-described “cripple,” treats all of her bodily experiences as if they matter, and for me, this was a mind-blowing concept. Mairs openly discusses sex, menstruation, pregnancy, clinical depression, and multiple sclerosis with disarming honesty and humor. I’ve been deeply influenced by her love for her body and the way she honors the memories of her physical life.
Her by Christa Parravani
What if your other half isn’t a romantic partner but your identical twin sister? What do you do when your bodies are permanently torn apart? After her twin, Cara, dies of an accidental drug overdose, Parravani grapples with an agonizing grief that might well have claimed her own life. She expresses this agony through her body: engaging in extramarital affairs, using a host of psychiatric medications just to function, attempting suicide. As someone who takes psychotropic meds and who once tried to die by my own hand, I saw myself in these aspects of her story. I also recognized something of my own experience in Parravani’s sorrow, seeing in it my mourning for the young, healthy, unmarred self I lost forever to illness.
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde
Lorde describes her Harlem upbringing, her sexual passion for women, her encounters with racism and homophobia, and even the meals she cooks in vivid and enthralling detail. Her mother is a formidable figure, a mystery to Lorde both psychologically and physically, as my mother was to me. One of the things I learned from this book was that every woman must to some extent leave her mother behind in order to craft her own life. Lorde is brash, funny, loving, fierce, and alive in every cell of her flesh. She inspired me to write the story of my body without apologies, holding nothing back.
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
This is a story of all the pleasure and pain that life in a female body entails. I was intrigued by Yuknavitch’s use of nonlinear narrative, and soon found I could tell my own story no other way. I was also fired up by Yuknavitch’s sheer bravery. She is not afraid of making the reader uncomfortable with intimate physical details. She describes experiences such as stillbirth and incest in language that is wholly her own. I learned from this memoir that we must find our own language to discuss what happens to our bodies, and that we must risk disturbing our audience in order to say what needs to be said.
Strange Piece of Paradise by Terri Jentz
It’s surprising to me that this incredible book isn’t discussed more often. In 1977, college student Jentz and her female friend are nearly slain by a stranger while camping in Oregon during a cross-country bike trip. For years, Jentz tries to deny the effects of her trauma, yet she finds herself clipping news stories about violent crimes and reading true crime books. Fifteen years later, she returns to Oregon to investigate her attempted murder. I recognized my trauma-fueled obsession with true crime in her collecting of murder stories, and I saw that if she could face her past with such courage, I could find the strength to face mine.
Lucky by Alice Sebold
Sebold doesn’t ease the reader into shocking subject matter. She opens this memoir with an excruciatingly detailed account of the brutal rape she endured as a young college student. If the reader can’t take in the scene, she will, and should, put down this book. I learned from Lucky that I might as well begin with the material that may be hard to stomach—true crime—since those who turn away aren’t the ones I’m writing for anyway. I also learned from this book that dealing with trauma is a long, twisting road, and a moment of triumph doesn’t magically heal the original wound.
Sick by Porochista Khakpour
An Iranian American whose family came to this country as refugees, Khakpour explores the ways in which trauma might cause or exacerbate illness, and how dealing with a broken medical system is itself traumatic. I was working on the final draft of Mercy when I read Sick. I’d wondered if I’d said too much about my conditions and their treatment in my memoir, and this book helped put that fear to rest. I was fascinated by her incredibly vivid descriptions of her symptoms, indicators of what is eventually diagnosed as late-stage Lyme disease. In minute, breathtaking detail, Khakpour discusses her headaches, joint pain, fatigue, intractable insomnia, and all of the other Lyme symptoms that defy Western medical intervention. Sick explores what it means to be a patient at the mercy of a healthcare system that sometimes harms us before it heals us, and in some cases never heals us at all.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
Gay fearlessly delineates the painful realities of inhabiting her body. After she is gang-raped at twelve years old, she rapidly gains weight in an effort to protect herself from the attentions of men. As an adult, she endures the appalling cruelty that is leveled at the “super morbidly obese.” “I do not want to take up space. I want to go unnoticed,” she says of her weight, something I relate to since I have at times wanted to vanish so that no one could scrutinize my body. Hunger is about the female body being judged and jeered at—by women as well as by men. It is about the lasting consequences of trauma. It is about rejecting the shame placed on our bodies and, ultimately, accepting the physical vulnerability we try so hard to push away.
My Body Is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta
As someone who uses dark humor to discuss trauma, I love how Washuta manages to be funny in a book that details her struggles with bipolar disorder, her reckoning with sexual assault, and her grappling with her Native American identity. I share her obsession with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and appreciate her use of the show’s tropes to both validate and minimize her experience. As a career depressive, I laughed and shuddered at her descriptions of the effects of psychiatric meds. Washuta is relentlessly self-deprecating and almost unbearably honest. The intimacy in her writing inspired me to go deeper and reveal things I’ve kept hidden for years.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Marcia’s debut book, Mercy: A Memoir of Medical Trauma and True Crime Obsession, out now from Barrelhouse Books! – Ed.
Mercy: A Memoir of Medical Trauma and True Crime Obsession by Marcia Trahan
When Marcia Trahan began watching true crime television, she did so in secret. She felt ashamed by her fascination with these violent stories, and how hungrily she consumed one gruesome tale after another. Only years later did she start to connect the dots between her true crime obsession and the series of invasive medical procedures that had left her feeling victimized and violated. Can the body tell the difference between an attacker’s knife and a surgeon’s? This is the central question in Mercy, a question that leads Trahan to re-examine her body’s reaction to lifesaving medical treatment, the childhood experiences that first made her feel unsafe in her own skin, and the true crime genre’s most common tropes. Part searingly honest memoir, part incisive cultural criticism, Mercy explores the appeal of true crime and the way so many of us live our whole lives bracing for an attack.