After it was published, I committed the cardinal internet sin of reading the comments. Normally I don’t do that, but The Mary Sue’s readers are savvy and smart, and I was curious what they said.
Most comments were written in the same vein as the post—funny, a little snarky, lighthearted. But one comment made me pause. In a nutshell, it asked “Why is this something to laugh at? Surely this was a real problem for some people.”
It’s a compelling point and one worth bearing in mind, always. When we laugh at things from the past, are we demeaning the lived experience of real people?
I hope I would never do that. I did, however, want to poke fun at a system of beliefs about women that reduced them to uterine function. The theory behind green sickness was that a virgin was vulnerable to all sorts of maladies because the ultimate function of the uterus was to be occupied, either by a man’s seed or by a child, and until that happened, it was a site of blocked humors and disease that made a maiden sick, weak, and listless.
It’s the same system that attributed a host of physical and mental disorders to a woman’s “wandering womb.”
It’s crucial we remember the role that set of beliefs played in the history of medicine, how it served as a foundation for the ways we think about and discuss women’s health.
That system still shapes the way we talk about menstruation and menopause, even about PMS.
Every day I read news stories that sound like they come right out of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. Women’s reproductive rights are being eroded day by day, from mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds to the limits on abortion even in the cases of rape or health of the mother.
I came across this image while browsing in the online collection of the Wellcome Library (heaven only knows what my search terms were). Even in the often-bizarre world of the Wellcome’s collection, with wood engravings of eyes swollen shut by a witch’s curse and pictures of possessed men spitting up nails, this image stood out.
Regurgitating, spitting, expectorating—it all gets a pretty bad rap. About the only time it’s marginally socially acceptable is when done by cute babies. (Witness the time one of my daughters (in the interest of familial harmony, I won’t identify which one), age 12 months, spit up on her grandfather just as my camera was clicking to take their picture. I now have a permanent record of the look of satisfaction on her face and the blend of surprise, disgust, and great good humor on his.)
In the 16th and 17th centuries, however, some performers were able to take the act of regurgitation to a whole new level.
Popular entertainer Blaise Manfrede was known for his ability to seemingly transform the vast amounts of water he swallowed into other liquids like milk or wine. His student, Floram Marchande, the subject of the above engraving, was known for turning water into a variety of wines, each in its own arc spit high above the crowds.
According to Joe Mitchell in Secrets of the Sideshows, Manfrede and Marchande employed special mouthpieces to help them spit the water in such dramatic fashion, and as for turning the water into wine—given that the “wine” got paler and paler the longer the act went on, it’s likely that Marchand ingested a red dye made from brazil nuts beforehand.
Though perhaps not as popular as it once was, the art of regurgitation has never really been abandoned. For example, in the 1920s and 30s, a Vaudeville performer named Hadji Ali was famous for swallowing and regurgitating water, nuts, smoke, handkerchiefs, and kerosene (which he would then spit out on a lit fire). You can see highlights of his act here:
Continuing the regurgitation tradition (if that can be said to be a thing), Glasgow-born Stevie Starr has made a career of regurgitating all sorts of items: broken glass, balloons, goldfish, and dry sugar. In 2010, he appeared on Britain’s Got Talent and flummoxed the audience by swallowing Amanda’s ring, a key, and a lock, and the regurgitating the ring—which was hooked onto the lock, presumably while in his stomach. Here it is (and oh my god, Amanda, are you really going to let the symbol of your enduring love be regurgitated by that man? Really, Amanda?):
On the downside, you may get psychosomatic itching after reading it, much like in 5th grade when you watched all those educational movies about lice. On the plus side, there is a largely gratuitous picture of an adorable scratching cat.
I’m currently revising a novel in which some folks have said I do a whole lot of telling and not enough showing.
I trained as an academic, so it’s practically a given that my early fiction attempts would skew towards the didactic, the wordy, the analytic. I knew that going in.
So if that feedback is so straightforward, why am I struggling with feelings of embarrassment, even shame? (And now we enter Inception-level neuroticism, in which I’m a little embarrassed about feeling shame.)
All I really have to do is add some more dialogue, inject more ambiguity in my characters by showing actions rather than explicating motives.
But when I sit down to do so, when I open the file and look and what I’ve written, when I revisit the feedback I’ve gotten, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t see these issues before.
Why do we writers do this to ourselves?
When I teach writing, I hammer the idea that writing is a skill, a techne, that improves with practice and feedback. I also insist my students share the following assumption: a critique of someone’s writing is not a critique of that person. I can object to a vague thesis or point out a comma splice and still think the writer is good and smart and worthwhile.
By the end of the quarter, my students can recite my mantra with me: “I am not my writing.”
So why can’t I take my own lessons to heart?
I think the answer lies somewhat in the mystification of the writing process. Those who don’t write regularly see only the final product, not the messy process, and so creation seems magical.
And indeed there are some inexplicable moments in the creative process when the right word or the perfect action is gifted to the writer by something that resembles a muse. But those moments are few and far between, patches of inspiration on a path littered with absurd turns of phrase and cringe-inducing dialogue.
Good writing seems to come from some place deep inside. I can deal with that.
The corollary, however, is chilling: if we can’t produce good writing, does that mean we don’t have good insides?
Obviously that’s poppycock, and yet . . . when has the subconscious ever made sense?
So I’m left relying on a process that seems to work for me: naming the thing that shames me. It’s a technique both modern and ancient. Dredge up the fear and give it a name. Call it by that name and declare its powerlessness.
My fear: if I write something someone doesn’t like, I am a bad writer, a poseur, an object of ridicule. I am bad.
That fear is absurd: I write to tell stories, to connect. If somebody teaches me how to tell a story differently, in such a way that I can connect with other people in better and more powerful ways, they have given me a gift. I want to use that knowledge to make my writing better.
For the last seven years, I’ve been volunteering with Josephine Community Libraries, an amazing group of folks who’ve worked with persistence and dedication to reopen our libraries after they were closed due to lack of funding (leaving 82,000 people without access to any library services whatsoever).
This year, some of us formed a political action committee to put a library district on the ballot. The district would have been completely independent of the government entities that closed the library in the first place.
On Tuesday, my community voted no on libraries. This is my response:
This is a hard blog post to write.
A majority of voters in Josephine County said “no” to a library district. They said no to investing in our community, to providing a safe place to learn and grow for our children, to ensuring that we always have a place where, regardless of income, we can improve ourselves.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow.
If you’re a supporter of the libraries, you may be having a hard time deciding what to do next. You’re probably shaking your head, wondering how our county can fail to see that libraries are foundational, that they transform lives daily. Maybe you’re embarrassed to tell family and friends in other parts of the country that you live in a place that won’t fund libraries.
And maybe you feel resentful of volunteering or writing a check to keep the libraries open, feeling as though you are subsidizing a vital community service for the naysayers.
I get it. I really, really get it. I’ve been struggling with those feelings for the last seven years, ever since we began working on reopening the libraries.
But then I remember the election of 2006. I was at the library campaign party when the results were called, and I was busy talking. I turned around to check on my kids, and I saw that my daughter, six years old at the time, was bawling. Just sobbing.
I was taken aback when I learned that the next chance to vote on a library district might not be for another four or five years. My oldest daughter would be eleven. My youngest would be nine. Those are critical reading years. And then I thought of all of their classmates and friends. A whole generation of kids who would grow up without the wealth of information and imagination a library provides…and a generation that would learn a harsh (and false) lesson that libraries, literacy, and education are worthless.
Then I remember the 15,474 people who voted yes. And the over 300 volunteers who give so tirelessly of their time and talent. And the 2,300 people who donate generously, knowing that libraries cost money, that they can’t just operate with a bunch of books and a card catalog.
Many have commented on the dedication of our volunteers and donors. It’s not just a fluke. That tenaciousness arises from the conviction that libraries matter.
Without a library district, drastic changes will need to be made. JCLI simply cannot afford to continue providing the current level of service with current revenue.
I know these changes have to happen, that our libraries will get worse, not better. Sometimes I feel paralyzed by the financial burdens the library faces. But I try to remember that small actions add up to great accomplishments, and when I volunteer or write out my check, I imagine my contribution helping JCLI provide better library services for even one additional day. That’s one day that thousands of Josephine County children have access to all the books they can imagine. That job seekers can fill out applications online. That seniors can have large-print books delivered to their home. That people of all ages, incomes, and backgrounds can transform their lives.
And it’s one more chance to send the message—to our children and to the outside world—that we care about ideas, education, literacy, and culture.
I have a new post up at The Recipes Project titled “Mrs. Corlyon’s Pimple Cream: A Toxic Topical.”
I’m linking to it below, but first a preface: Turning 40 sucks. Within six months of my big 4-0, I developed a case of acid-reflux bad enough to land me in the emergency room (I called it my fake heart attack) and a nasty reappearance of plantar fasciitis that had me rolling frozen water bottles under my feet. But neither of those was as sucky as the newly developed rosacea. Within a week, I once again had the self-confidence of my pizza-faced younger self, examining my chin and nose in the mirror for new eruptions.* Only this time it HURT!
Who knows if I would have been desperate enough to try Mrs. Corlyon’s recipe for “red face and pimples.” I’m just really grateful I have my FDA-approved topical ointment….
*(Okay, maybe more self-confidence because I doubt my 16-year-old self would have written about her pimples so publicly. Or maybe it’s just another case of my having zero gravitas?)
Mrs. Corlyon’s Pimple Cream: A Toxic Topical
Reading an early recipe book can be an emotional roller coaster. There’s disgust (“’Snail water’? With real snails? Eww”), delight (“’A pudding of pippins’? That’s like something out of The Hobbit!”), and dismay (“NO! Do not drink the cordial of horse dung! Don’t do it!”).
In 2007, all of the libraries in my county were closed due to lack of funding, leaving 82,000 people without access to any library services whatsoever.
It sucked. A lot. For so, so many reasons.
Since then, I’ve been a volunteer for Josephine Community Libraries, a nonprofit that reopened the libraries when the county government refused to do so. A group of us have also formed Keep Our Libraries Open, working to pass a publicly funded library district in Josephine County.
Anyway, that’s the background to this piece I wrote for Keep Our Libraries Open.
Back in 2009, when JCLI finally reopened the library, we volunteers worried we were in over our heads. After 18 months of working together, we sure knew how to fundraise, but we didn’t know yet know how to run a library. One thing was a given, though: this library would reflect our community’s needs. So we set out a suggestion box.
The ideas we got were pretty much what we expected: materials requests, questions about expanded hours, new program proposals.
I’ve been reading about a genre of folk stories that have as a central character a “hog-faced woman,” and I’m left shaking my head at the uncanniness of human imagination.
These tales seem to have arisen in the early 17th century concurrently in England, The Netherlands, and France. Most of the stories begin with a rich woman refusing charity to a beggar and her children, calling them “piggish” for asking for alms. The beggar turns out to be a witch who in revenge curses the child in the woman’s womb. The child is born perfectly healthy but with the face of a pig.
The first story of the pig-faced woman to have wide reach in England was circulated in a tract titled “A Certaine Relation of the Hog-faced Gentlewoman called Mistris Tannakin Skinker.”
(The story of Tannakin Skinker may or may not have had a basis in fact–the parallels to the pre-existing legends make me think it’s a fabrication.)
In keeping with earlier versions of the legend, Tannakin’s mother refuses to give alms to an elderly woman, who curses her, proclaiming, ‘As the Mother is Hoggish, so Swinish shall be the Child shee goeth withal.”
Tannakin is born healthy but with a snout and a preference for eating out of a silver trough.Tannakin’s father consults a famous scholar of magic, who tells them Tannakin will retain the snout while still a virgin, but that on her wedding night—provided she not be wed to “a Clowne, Bore or Pesant”—she will be cured. (Kathy Haas of the Rosenbach Collection points out that the story follows the traditional medieval trope of “the loathly lady.”)
The family moves to London and finds a likely prospect. On Tannakin’s wedding night, when her new husband reaches for her, he finds a beautiful young woman with a human’s nose. When he tries to kiss her, she tells him,
Sir, I am indeed no other than I now seeme unto you; and of these two things I give you free choice, whether I shall appeare to you thus as you now see me, young, faire, and lovely in your bed, and all the daytime, and abroad, of my former deformity: or thus beautifull in the day, to the sight of your friends, but in your armes every night of my former Age and Uglinesse: of these two things I give you free choice of, which till you have resolv’d me, there can be no other familiarity betwixt in: therefore without pause give me a speedy answer
Here’s where I fall in love with the story. Tannakin husband chooses not to choose, instead letting Tannakin decide. Tannakin is given the choice, agency in determining the contours of her face and her fate. She says,
Now Sir, you have given me that which all women most desire, my Will, and Soveraignty; and know I, was by a wicked and sorcerous step-dame inchanted, never to returne to my pristine shape, till I was first married, and after had received such power from my Husband · And now from henceforth I shall be the same to you night and day, of that youth and lively-hood which you now see mee; till Time and Age breed new alteration, even to the last period of my life.
“That which all women most desire, my Will, and Soveraignty”: isn’t that wonderful?
One thing I find fascinating about this story is that it doesn’t display the early modern period’s affinity for correspondences in physiognomy. As Laura Gowing argues in her book Common Bodies: Women, Touch, and Power in Seventeenth-Century England, “In the literature of monstrous births, women become the conduit by which bestial features of body parts–in some cases, whole animals–found their way into human reproduction. Seeing a hare could cause a hare-lip; a jockey’s wife might give birth to a child with a horse’s head.” Given the resemblance of the woman’s face to a pig, the reader might expect to hear Tannakin described as hungry, greedy, gluttonous, and bestial. Instead, she shows great patience, indulgence, and wisdom.
Today, the legend of Tannakin Skinker and the trope of the pig-faced woman is all but dead, but there are still echoes. Check out this video of “Mad Madam Mims” from the Disney animated film, The Sword in the Stone (especially around 1:03 and 1:19):
There is also the (IMO underrated) movie Penelope starring Cristina Ricci. There are too many similarities—the nose, the marriage, the curse—for it to be a fluke. Here’s the trailer.
As we’ve seen, in the tale of Tannakin Skinker, the “hog-faced woman” character is allowed to choose her own fate. She has agency and control. This theme is pushed even further in Penelope, in which the main character runs away after meeting cute with her potential husband. The plot is too complicated to get into, but suffice to say that Penelope breaks the curse by learning to love herself with the help of Reese Witherspoon in a fine turn as a Vespa-riding sub-category of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Is it cheesy? Yes. Do I love it anyway? Yes.
And do I think it’s a fascinating twist on a centuries-old tale that reveals much about 21st-century American ideals of beauty, individualism, and self-actualization. You betcha.
Many fields define themselves by specialties. Doctors are not just doctors—they are podiatrists or pediatricians or surgeons. Restaurant workers are baristas or pastry chefs or sommeliers. Writers are novelists or poets or “content providers.” So it is for academics, as well. When I’m wearing that hat, I define myself as an early modernist.
But even within narrow academic confines, we find ways to shrink our focus (for better and for worse). I trained in early modern English literature with an interest in the history of early modern science and medicine. Recently, because of a novel I’ve written, I’ve become a little obsessed with alchemy, as well.
By definition, such a narrow focus means few people are interested in (understatement) what makes my clock tick. So imagine my surprise when, on a long car trip last month, my teenage daughter turned to me, looked up from the book she was reading, and said, “Hey, Mom, this is cool. This is the sort of thing you like.”
And she was absolutely right. She was pointing to a picture of Hennig Brand, a 17th-century alchemist from Germany who spent his life searching for the philosopher’s stone, that elusive substance capable of turning lead into gold. Brand was a soldier with the valuable talent of marrying well—he burned through (pun intended) two wives’ handsome fortunes in his alchemical pursuits.
While Brand never did find/create/uncover the Philosopher’s Stone (that we know of…), he certainly hit the mother lode by successfully isolating phosphorous. To do so, he, ummm…well….let this video show you first:
Brand collected around 60 buckets of human urine, waited for it to ferment to the point of turning black, and then boiled it down into a syrup. That syrup was distilled and cooked over very high heat. He then took the cooked substance—minus the salts that had formed alongside—and submerged it in water. (Excellent descriptions of the process can be found here and here.) The substance he’d discovered–phosphorous–was chemiluminescent, emitting a soft light that at the time must have seemed magical indeed.
Brand, like most other alchemists, kept his discoveries to himself, but he was able to sell his secret later (and recoup at least some of his wife’s money). Other folks, including Robert Boyle, later discovered the process independent of Brand. (They were tipped off, most likely, that the phosphorous had been made from urine. Boyle made the process more effective by also using the salt that Brand threw away.)
And because I’m deficient in gravitas, I couldn’t resist adding this video. If you can’t get enough of pee puns (or if you love to see Anderson Cooper giggle):