An­ti­dotes to misog­yny

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - An­tonella Gam­botto-Burke

The tra­di­tional con­tem­pla­tive voice is male. Cul­tur­ally we have in­ter­nalised the tenor of count­less men — Plato, Aris­to­tle, Kant, Ni­et­zsche and oth­ers — and with it the un­der­stand­ing that rea­son is mas­cu­line. In con­trast, fem­i­nine voices — Vir­ginia Woolf and An­drea Dworkin, for ex­am­ple — con­tinue to be con­tex­tu­alised within the con­fines of their in­sta­bil­ity, ap­pear­ance or sex­u­al­ity. Ayn Rand, Si­mone de Beau­voir and Mar­garet Thatcher, some of the few fe­male ide­o­logues ad­mired by men, felt it nec­es­sary to de­ride their fem­i­nin­ity to at­tract re­spect. As Thatcher mem­o­rably said to her cabi­net, “Gentle­men, shall we join the ladies?”

The im­pact of this big­otry and marginal­i­sa­tion ex­tends to ev­ery level of the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence, from birth prac­tices to how his­tory it­self is de­fined. Even now, the philo­soph­i­cal fe­male gaze rarely wa­vers from per­sonal dys­func­tion.

But is this fo­cus the re­sult of an en­trenched ghetto men­tal­ity or the as­ser­tion that the per­sonal is po­lit­i­cal? Bri­tish med­i­cal his­to­rian and “del­i­cate cut­ter” Sarah Chaney has writ­ten Psy­che on the Skin: A His­tory of Self-Harm as a re­but­tal against the psy­chi­atric ap­pro­pri­a­tion of self-harm­ing as solely per­verse. For more than a cen­tury, doctors have sought a uni­ver­sal def­i­ni­tion so as to work­shop ef­fec­tive treat­ment. But is non-sui­ci­dal self-in­jury im­pul­sive or cog­ni­tive, prim­i­tive or de­gen­er­a­tionist, per­verse or cel­e­bra­tory?

“On the one hand,” Chaney writes, “the mod­ern con­cept of self-harm usu­ally de­scribes the be­hav­iour as a pri­vate, per­sonal act re­lated to in­di­vid­ual in­ner tur­moil; on the other, the trig­ger is em­bed­ded in a neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cal model of con­di­tion­ing, based on re­flex re­sponses. Where does one be­gin and the other end?”

NSSI, Chaney ar­gues, can­not be un­der­stood out­side its so­cial and cul­tural con­text, and the idea of fe­male self-in­jury as in­trin­si­cally hys­ter­i­cal or ma­nip­u­la­tive is misog­y­nis­tic. “By ex­am­in­ing the at­tri­bu­tion of mean­ing to self­in­flicted in­jury from a his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive, it be­comes clear that self-mu­ti­la­tion emerged from a va­ri­ety of con­tem­po­rary con­cerns and frame­works for un­der­stand­ing hu­man iden­tity.’’ It’s an exquisitely orig­i­nal take, and one evinced by Chaney with an at­trac­tive in­ten­sity and wa­ver­ing lev­els of con­fi­dence. Dis­cur­sive, metic­u­lously po­lit­i­cally cor­rect and, at times, metal­lic in tone, she at­tacks the shift­ing bor­ders of psy­chi­a­try and its bale­ful gen­der bias.

This book ex­plores cas­tra­tion of the ancients and “ther­a­peu­tic” blood­let­ting, the un­easy re­la­tion­ship be­tween mas­tur­ba­tion and the mas­cu­line ideal, pi­ous flag­el­la­tion, masochism and the death im­pulse, and trauma and con­ta­gion in the in­ter­net era. Some of Chaney’s most en­gag­ing re­search cen­tres on early Chris­tian no­tions of the body, var­i­ously un­der­stood as “a spir­i­tual ob­sta­cle, a tem­po­rary prison for an im­mor­tal soul” and a “ne­ces­sity, to en­sure that the spirit was ap­pro­pri­ately nur­tured over time, in­creas­ing its de­sire to be­come one with God in death”.

Cer­tain early the­olo­gians un­der­stood the body as “an in­stru­ment on which his faith could be made phys­i­cally vis­i­ble”, go­ing so far as to com­pare hu­man skin with that of a tam­bourine and “sug­gest­ing that both might be ‘played’ in or­der to praise God”. Re­li­gious flag­el­lants, too, “used the body as an in­stru­ment of penance and de­vo­tion, to ex­pi­ate sin and to praise God”.

Chaney notes that the hu­man body, the can­vas of self-mu­ti­la­tion, is de­fined not only by value but by change, dis­tin­guish­ing it from the eter­nal spirit, a “gen­der­less ideal”. The def­i­ni­tion of gen­der, she ar­gues, is a kind of fic­tion, and as mu­ta­ble as that of any other hu­man at­tribute: “[T]he body was poised on the edge of a trans­for­ma­tion so enor­mous as to make all present no­tions of iden­tity tied to sex­ual dif­fer­ences, and all so­cial roles based upon mar­riage, pro­cre­ation, and child­birth, seem as frag­ile as dust danc­ing in a sun­beam.”

Her sug­ges­tions and in­ves­ti­ga­tions into gen­der and NSSI are any­thing but friv­o­lous. For­mal di­ag­noses are im­pos­si­ble with­out a med­i­cal def­i­ni­tion, and Amer­i­can in­sur­ance com­pa­nies refuse to pay for med­i­cal treat­ment with­out them. How­ever, as Chaney writes, “en­shrin­ing NSSI as a spe­cific syn­drome runs the risk of im­pos­ing one spe­cific cul­tural model of ‘harm’ across en­tire pop­u­la­tions”. In ad­di­tion, there are too many vari­ables. How does cos­metic brand­ing fit in? Tat­toos? Sado­masochism? Apotemnophilia? “Plas­tic Pos­i­tives”? Per­for­mance art? And how is sev­er­ing of a baby’s fore­skin for re­li­gious rea­sons any dif­fer­ent to sev­er­ing the cli­toris of a girl for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons? Is the pierc­ing of an ear less patho­log­i­cal than the pierc­ing of a brow, lip or the glans? To what ex­tent does cul­tural sanc­tion over­ride pathol­ogy?

Ul­ti­mately, Chaney wants to di­vert some of the at­ten­tion from in­di­vid­ual re­spon­si­bil­ity to darker sculp­tural forces. Psy­chi­a­try, she writes, has largely sug­gested nar­ra­tives framed in clin­i­cal, bio­med­i­cal or in­di­vid­ual terms. Of­ten, this ig­nores the things that hap­pen to peo­ple or the en­vi­ron­ments they live in. Poverty, home­less­ness, abuse, racism, op­pres­sion ... be­come in­ter­nalised as symp­toms of ei­ther bio­med­i­cal fail­ing or in­ter­nal con­flict. This is not to say that psy­chi­a­try can­not be help­ful in mak­ing sense of our nar­ra­tives or that med­i­cal ser­vices may not serve a valu­able pur­pose. But it can never be the only thing that shapes us.

Bri­tish-born, Mel­bourne-based Jenny Valen­tish comes to all the same con­clu­sions in Woman of Sub­stances: A Jour­ney into Ad­dic­tion and Treat­ment. This book is part mono­graph, part mem­oir, part Gins­ber­gian howl of out­rage at a cul­ture in which gen­der bias is a tenet. It is a work of com­pellingly ar­tic­u­late anger. Like Chaney, Valen­tish presents her frac­tured psy­che as ground zero and from there launches into a quest to con­tex­tu­alise her pre­mar­i­tal promis­cu­ity, psy­chosis and shapeshift­ing ad­dic­tions (al­co­hol, drugs, sex, sweets, porn). The rage. The f..king rage! It’s al­ways there, in­flat­ing in­side me, like the Hin­den­burg await­ing a match. I’ve no doubt that it was the fiery fuel of my ben­ders for all those years, though I hid it well.

She re­searches men­tal health is­sues per­ti­nent to women, in­clud­ing “self-sooth­ing shame, self-med­i­cat­ing anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion, the link with eat­ing dis­or­ders and self-harm, the propen­sity to be drawn to abu­sive sit­u­a­tions, the stigma around de­pen­dent moth­ers, the phys­i­cal is­sues that women in par­tic­u­lar can de­velop, and the fact that the treat­ment in­dus­try is still geared to­wards the male ex­pe­ri­ence”.

In her early quest for ac­cep­tance, Valen­tish pored over “the clas­sic sex­ists — Bukowski, Roth, Amis, Mailer, Updike, Hem­ing­way, Ker­ouac” and be­came a “ladette, the spare rib of the 1990s lad”. It was only later she learned of the dra­matic spike in death rates from liver dis­ease, hepati­tis and other al­co­hol-re­lated dam­age among women from Liver­pool, Manch­ester and Glas­gow, who came of age in the era of rave cul­ture and acid house.

She dropped LSD, smoked crack, mixed am­phet­a­mines with her break­fast juice, took heroin, and was car­ried co­matose from trains. Her im­pul­siv­ity was both in­di­rectly sui­ci­dal and sanc­tioned by the subcul­ture she loved.

Valen­tish, again like Chaney, chal­lenges the “dis­ease” model of ad­dic­tion. “In the US it’s nec­es­sary to have sub­stance de­pen­dence clas­si­fied as a ‘chronic re­laps­ing brain dis­ease’ to have treat­ment cov­ered by pri­vate health in­sur­ance. For the same rea­son, obe­sity is clas­si­fied as a dis­ease. Ad­di­tion­ally a dis­ease is, in the­ory, treat­able by drugs, which keeps the big phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies happy.’’

She goes on to ex­plore the cause of the sel­f­reg­u­la­tory fail­ures that lead to ad­dic­tion, re­port­ing that care­giver ne­glect re­sults in sel­f­reg­u­la­tion not be­ing routed into the neu­ral path­ways. Emo­tional trauma also trig­gers epi­ge­netic changes to sperm and egg cells, “in­creas­ing the like­li­hood of stress dis­or­ders in the next gen­er­a­tion”.

One of Valen­tish’s most fas­ci­nat­ing claims is that “rats who had ex­pe­ri­enced ma­ter­nal sep­a­ra­tion went on to have sig­nif­i­cantly higher re­sponses to stress and higher sen­si­tiv­ity to co­caine’’. For hu­mans, “be­ing sen­si­tised to stress can lead to sig­nif­i­cant long-term neu­ro­phys­i­o­log­i­cal adap­ta­tions, pro­vok­ing in­tense anx­i­ety, re­ac­tiv­ity and hy­per­vig­i­lance, per­haps even trig­ger­ing a range of psy­chi­atric dis­or­ders’’. Self-sooth­ing with drugs can pro­duce a height­ened sen­si­tiv­ity to their ef­fects.

With glit­ter­ing bit­ter­ness and can­dour, she writes of be­ing sex­u­ally abused at age seven by an older boy. Her re­ac­tion is dis­turb­ing and pre­dictable. She be­gins hiss­ing abuse at her re­flec­tion, uri­nat­ing on the car­pet, rak­ing her arms with coat-hang­ers. “I’d pum­mel the soft fur­nish­ings, threaten the walls, splin­ter pen­cils in my mouth. Among my harem of dolls there was one plas­tic-haired boy. One af­ter­noon I punched him till his eye­lids rat­tled. I oblit­er­ated his face with crayons, stabbed him with a kitchen knife, and left him for dead in a flowerbed.”

Like her ad­dic­tion, her self-ha­tred con­tin­u­ously shapeshifted. She took pride in her cho­sen nick­names: “Jenny Slap­per”, “Junkie Jen”, “Ni­cotina Staines”. Child sex­ual abuse, she learns, is “an al­most drea­rily fa­mil­iar tale to those work­ing in the drug and al­co­hol field”. She thinks the gov­ern­men­tal fo­cus should change from drugs to ad­dic­tion. She asks why the courts do not heav­ily pe­nalise the sex­ual, phys­i­cal and emo­tional abuse of chil­dren.

Woman of Sub­stances and Psy­che on the Skin pivot on gen­der bias, par­tic­u­larly in medicine. As Valen­tish writes, “[T]he ex­perts on the DSM [Di­ag­nos­tic and Sta­tis­ti­cal Man­ual of Men­tal Dis­or­ders] task­force were mostly men who had cod­i­fied their bi­ased as­sump­tions about what be­hav­iours were healthy in a woman and what were not.’’ A fem­i­nist who still abuses drugs (“a de­ci­sion I made about two years into to­tal ab­sti­nence, and it’s about joy­ous bursts, rather than grind­ing self-med­i­ca­tion”), Valen­tish never pauses to con­sider the im­pact of “joy­ous” First World drug abuse on women in the de­vel­op­ing world. Sim­i­larly, she doesn’t con­sider the cost of drugs in our com­mu­nity: the de­formed ba­bies; the sex­u­ally, phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally abused chil­dren; the trau­ma­tised fam­i­lies. She prefers to fo­cus on the softer is­sue of gen­der in re­cov­ery pro­grams.

De­spite such flubs, the per­sonal sig­nif­i­cance of their sub­jects to Valen­tish and Chaney only strength­ens their con­tri­bu­tion. They vi­o­lently kick against the pricks, as­sert­ing their author­ity with elo­quence and vigour. Which is a good thing. The stronger the fe­male voice in our cul­ture, the stronger our en­dorse­ment of hu­man­ity. To un­der­stand our­selves as a species, we need not only the po­lit­i­cal ideal of con­cord but the philo­soph­i­cal par­ity that makes it pos­si­ble.

is the au­thor of The Eclipse: A Mem­oir of Sui­cide and Mama: Love, Mother­hood and Rev­o­lu­tion.

Mel­bourne au­thor Jenny Valen­tish

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