Abby Norman’s compellingly crafted memoir joins the canon of growing – and valuable – literature exploring the human experience of physical and mental pain and illness, but it’s so much more too: it’s a cri de coeur against an ongoing legacy of a patriarchal medical system that has long ignored, minimised, or even insulted women’s narratives of their bodies and their desire for professional help when their minds or bodies desperately need it. Early on, she sets out her well-researched theme: ‘If women have become synonymous with hysteria, malingering, and hypocondria in a clinical setting, then it has far less to do with the natural inclinications of women and behaviour than it does the history of medicine.’
But alongside a polemic that needs as much oxygen as possible, Ask Me About My Uterus is also a harrowing memoir about a chaotic and traumatic childhood, disrupted and disturbed by a mother’s severe mental and physical illness, and a father who seems to be psychologically absent alongside it. Her razor-sharp mind clearly helped her to escape her dysfunctional family, but also to become the accomplished writer that produced this book, alongside other great journalism.
Norman charts the beginnings of her state of pain to the age of nineteen, at a time of great promise. Having legally emancipated herself from her non-parenting parents three years previously, and scored a scholarship to a well-respected University, her future – at long last – looked rosy. But a searingly painful experience one early morning in the shower as a Freshman is her marker for the beginnings of a decade of chronic pain, and a chronic despair at not being able to make adequate and swift sense of its cause. She is still managing her pain today, and her epilogue conveys the extent to which she has come to terms with a writing life built around her exhausted and agonised body.
Endometriosis emerges as one explanation for her debilitating episodes – although her appendix, and possible/probable neurological problems are clear contributors too. Endometriosis is a chronic condition where tissues similar to the womb lining grows elsewhere (although her ruthless research unearths cases of men with the condition too). The tissues inflames and causes intense pain and other associated problems – such as painful sex, urinary and gastric problems. It is thought to affect up to 10 per cent of women, many of whom spend years seeking treatment – which may end up being removal of the womb, ovaries and fallopian tubes – as Lena Dunham spoke of last year.
Norman prises open a little understood condition, alongside beautifully crafted descriptions of existential anguish, and memories of a childhood of great deprivation. Yet her stoicism means there isn’t a note of mawkishness, and she consistently honours the nourishing relationships she rightfully -earned. For British readers, her story is a salutary reminder of how fortunate we are to have free NHS medical care – however much we may rail against it.