What Her Body Thought: A Journey into the Shadows

What Her Body Thought: A Journey into the Shadows

by Susan Griffin

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In this boldly intimate and intelligent blend of personal memoir, social history, and cultural criticism, Susan Griffin profoundly illuminates our understanding of illness. She explores its physical, emotional, spiritual, and social aspects, revealing how it magnifies our yearning for connection and reconciliation.

Griffin begins with a gripping account of her


In this boldly intimate and intelligent blend of personal memoir, social history, and cultural criticism, Susan Griffin profoundly illuminates our understanding of illness. She explores its physical, emotional, spiritual, and social aspects, revealing how it magnifies our yearning for connection and reconciliation.

Griffin begins with a gripping account of her own harrowing experiences with Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (CFIDS), a potentially life-threatening illness that has been misconstrued and marginalized through the label "psychosomatic." Faced with terrifying bouts of fatigue, pain, and diminished thinking, the shame of illness, and the difficulty of being told you are "not really ill," she was driven to understand how early childhood loss made her susceptible to disease.

Alongside her own story, Griffin weaves in her fascinating interpretation of the story of Marie du Plessis, popularized as the fictional Camille, an eighteenth-century courtesan whose young life was taken by tuberculosis. In the old story, Griffin finds contemporary themes of "money, bills, creditors, class, social standing, who is acceptable and who not, who is to be protected and who abandoned." In our current economy, she sees "how to be sick can impoverish, how poverty increases the misery of sickness, and how the implicit violence of this process wounds the soul as well as the body."

Griffin insists that we must tell our stories to maintain our own integrity and authority, so that the sources of suffering become visible and validated. She writes passionately of a society where we are all cared for through "the rootedness of our connections. How the wound of being allowed to suffer points to a need to meet at the deepest level, to make an exchange at the nadir of life and death, the giving and taking which will weave a more spacious fabric of existence, communitas, community." Her views of the larger problems of illness and society are deeply illuminating.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
As in Kat Duff's Alchemy of Illness (Bell Tower, 1994), feminist Griffin uses her personal battle with chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS) as a springboard for a critique of Western medical practices. More importantly, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Griffin (The Eros of Everyday Life, LJ 11/1/95) vividly describes the compound effect of the illness's mysterious symptoms and the absence of adequate social support structures on her mental outlook. Griffin brilliantly summons sensual and emotional impressions from her childhood as she speculates that psychological factors may have contributed to her contracting CFIDS. She also puts her tale in historical context by poetically weaving in the story of Marie de Plessis, the 19th-century French courtesan whose tuberculosis inspired Alexandre Dumas's novel and play (and later the Greta Garbo film) Camille. Highly recommended for philosophy and women's studies collections.--Kim Baxter, New Jersey Inst. of Technology, Newark Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
NY Times Book Review
An amalgam of genres — memoir, cultural criticism, political argument, historical invstigation and spiritual meditation...
Kirkus Reviews
This challenging and provocative chronicle of an illness reaches far beyond the author's symptoms to incorporate the romance of Camille, a child's abandonment, the body's relationship to nature and to history, money, poetry, the environment, democracy, and the loss of a certain kind of consciousness.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.13(d)

Read an Excerpt

While I retreated down to lower ground,
before my eyes there suddenly appeared
one who seemed faint because of the long silence.
—Dante, Inferno
Yes, this is the dangerous, lucid hour.


That sense of descent, hurtling downward toward the original image of all that is fundamentally bad, a body in pain. And always accompanied by fear, the nearness of death, or other endings, the termination of capabilities, lost limbs, eyesight, hearing, hair, skin erupting, blood appearing, breath disappearing, menacing sights, sounds, smells, the unavoidable presence of what is unpleasant, disagreeable, unlucky, even evil. This palpable badness having invaded or mysteriously appeared from somewhere or come about from some heretofore unsuspected cause. Or in its own way, just as terrible, a known cause that could not be prevented, despite every effort, the secret failure, the failure that cannot be hidden.

How do you dare speak of this?


And now, just as you prepare to tell your own story, you hear another story, one you know will be with you as you make your descent.

Two Stories

I know I am here to tell a story. And perhaps it is for this reason that as I ride on the Métro, on the second day after my arrival in Paris, I am acutely aware that all around me, in a language that is still not fluent for me, stories are being told. A group of girls speak almost at once, each giving a different piece of an event they experienced together. An older woman, perhaps a mother, listens as a youngerwoman, perhaps her daughter, recounts what happened to her that morning. A man sits reading a newspaper filled with reports from all over the world. In my purse I carry a Pariscope, the weekly publication that lists hundreds of movies; compelling tales are being unreeled all day in theaters all over the city. And sitting alone for two brief stops between Châtelet and Hôtel de Ville, I am composing a little story now, not only imagining the lives of those around me, but configuring myself in the narrative I call my life. The subterranean depths of the Métro seem fitting. My story is immersed in the body. And it is also right that I should be in this city. The story I will tell alongside my own was set here. As I wander the streets for the flavor of this history, just as certainly as I have entered Paris, the body of the city has entered me.

The tale I tell from my own life concerns an episode in an illness I have had for more than a decade. Over a period of three years I was very ill. Now, though several years have passed since I got back on my feet, and though I have regained most of my strength, something else inside me has not recovered. An affliction remains that may seem ephemeral compared to fevers or tremors yet nevertheless acts powerfully in my life. The dimensions of memory loom large for me. I am still afraid. And this is why I have decided to move toward rather than away from a terrain of suffering I might otherwise just as well forget. There is a part of myself caught in this underworld, a crucial fragment of being that, only because I have grown stronger in body and soul, I am able to rescue now. Something else, still molten, remains to be discovered in my past.

The memory frightens me. Still I am drawn not only by the hope of staring down this fear but by something else, almost outside the ken of my own story, there in the background, dim but still signaling to me now. Illness is often treated as an isolated event, an island of suffering significant only in itself. Yes, there is drama in disease; in fact, cast as it is between life and death, what more could one ask from a good story? A woman struggles valiantly for years before she succumbs to a little-known disease that turns all her tissue to a stonelike hardness. A celebrated writer laughs his way to health. No longer able to pitch a ball over the plate, a famous and beloved baseball player discovers he has a fatal illness that will soon make him helpless and dependent.

But I have begun to look beyond the solitary figure, toward a background that has all but faded into obscurity. It is there outside the sickroom, outside even the house, occupied as it may be by worried friends and family; it is also in the streets, the town, the city, society. And if illness is already understood by some as a social problem, I am beginning to see it as a source of vision too, a new lens through which one can see society more clearly. Just now, I find myself transfixed by a slight glimmer of promise at the edges of my story, barely discernible traces of a new way of seeing.The glimmer only grows more intense when I add a second story to my own. Just as I was emerging from the worst episode of my illness and preparing to tell the tale, an older story, legendary in my childhood, caught my attention. Though I had nearly forgotten it, this story took on such a powerful life in my thinking that soon I found I had taken on a companion for my descent into memory. And now it seems entirely natural to me that I should tell it along with mine.

The presence of this tale has widened the scope of my vision by over a century. Known in America as Camille, the older story that accompanies mine, though fictional, is based on a true story that took place almost one hundred years before my birth. This was a time of titanic events. A revolution had recently occurred. There were high hopes for democracy, equality, justice. And yet in the same period, while great fortunes...

What People are saying about this

Lillian B. Rubin
"This wonderfully subtle weave of thoughts, observations and reflections on illness and meaning is vintage Griffin. As she takes us into the heart of illness, we also learn much about our society and its social order. And it'sall done with a lyrical beauty that touches the soul."
Maxine Hong Kingston
"A beautiful book. Susan Griffin contemplates the mortal body with subtlety and care. The music of her elegant language joyfully comforts the reader. Here are illuminating stories. Poetry. Philosophies of life."

Meet the Author

Susan Griffin is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated A Chorus of Stones, as well as the bestselling Woman and Nature, Pornography and Silence, and The Eros of Everyday Life.

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