Josephine Taylor is a writer and editor. She is Associate Editor at Westerly Magazine and an Adjunct Senior Lecturer in Writing at Edith Cowan University. Her debut novel Eye of a Rook investigates the history of hysteria, female sexuality and the treatment of the female body.
Is there a moment you recall that shaped your own idea of feminism?
I was asked to join the feminist reading group Magdalena Talks Back in 2008 after presenting some work from my PhD thesis, Vulvodynia and Autoethnography. I’d never been one to embrace ‘ists’ or ‘isms’, because I need a lot of intellectual freedom and I’d always found them potentially prescriptive. So when a bit of a dispute arose about how we addressed each other in the group, I thought ‘Uh-oh, here we go!’. But then when I brought up my misgivings, I was delightfully surprised to find it was absolutely okay to challenge each other; that feminism is a broad church (didn’t want to use that word but it fits!).
At its best, this group was a fabulous and fitting introduction to feminism, with the best of what I think of as a woman-to-woman sociality, via Luce Irigaray. I presented much of my thesis material there, as well as the first scenes I wrote for Eye of a Rook, and the sensation of being heard and properly understood has stayed with me and continues to inform the way I meet the world.
The parallels between now and the Victorian era in how women’s bodies are dealt with medically are astonishing and a little depressing. How did you first make this discovery and come to write about it?
I began writing about my experience of vulvodynia (chronic vulvar pain) in 2004, but after a few years of research I was struggling to hold the words and ideas together. In taking up a PhD I had access to multiple research sources as well as a dedicated supervisor. Being held in that way was important, as trying to make sense of my own disorder carried me to information that challenged me emotionally. It was also the perfect background to Eye of a Rook, because I could embed some of what I’d learned into the discoveries made by my character Alice as, in trying to solve her unrelenting illness, she researches the history of vulvar pain, hysteria and women’s bodies and sexuality.
So we have Alice exploring western history to see what has and also what hasn’t changed in knowledge and awareness since Victorian times. She is shocked by the accuracy of descriptions of vulvar pain in the writings of some early gynaecologists in the 1800s; despairing at the influence of Sigmund Freud on psychiatry and medicine, even as she endorses his ideas around pain and ego formation; appreciative of Jean-Martin Charcot’s detailing of the symptoms of hysterics at the Salpêtrière in Paris, even as she deplores the manipulation of his patients; despondent at the disappearance of vulvar pain in the records, and the emergence of a psychoanalytic slant in more recent medical articles: ‘“psychological causation”, “unconscious conflict”, “sexual dysfunction”, “secondary gain”. And this purported gain? A way to avoid intercourse. Ha! She’d laugh if it didn’t rile her so much.’
We also have Alice discovering Isaac Baker Brown and his book, which details his treatment of women with hysteria and other disorders in Victorian London, and reeling from the descriptions of his brutal surgery. I could bring this history to life in the historical narrative as a point of contact between the two times and the two women, who grapple with the same symptoms. In having Arthur and Emily consult Brown and contemplate the surgery—Arthur’s perspective and Emily’s letters revealing their thoughts and feelings about this—I could bring detail to a world that might feel distant but is close, and create empathy for the women in both timelines.
What can we do to change how women are diagnosed and treated in medical practice?
We need to close the gap between research-based knowledge and clinical care. There is frequently a lengthy delay in the diagnosis of vulvodynia and often women are told or made to feel that their pain is ‘all in the head’. In correcting this, education is imperative. Every GP, gynaecologist, dermatologist, urologist and psychologist should know that vulvodynia is a real medical complaint with a devastating impact, and that there is a conservative treatment plan that can be provided at the outset.
At a more fundamental level, we all need to work to correct binaried societal biases and a patriarchal medical structure. Those who diagnose and treat women with vulvodynia need to believe and trust their patients. She is not malingering or exaggerating her symptoms; she does want to recover. If she is angry or defensive, it’s because she has encountered harmful attitudes and/or treatments. Place her at the centre of treatment and support her in building a team of expert practitioners.
Fortunately, there are organisations providing information and support, including the International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease, the Pudendal Pain Foundation and the National Vulvodynia Association (US). However, when women are still reporting that it has taken months to be diagnosed, that treatments have made symptoms worse, that they have been told or made to feel that their terrible and terrifying pain is imagined or somehow their fault, even if they doesn’t know it themselves, we still have a long way to go.
In the book you do a remarkable job of capturing the way women who experience extreme pain and suffering must also manage some pretty condescending, dismissive and otherwise crappy behaviour from spouses, friends and family. Are male partners and other loved ones showing up for women with chronic illness or disorders?
Thanks for the ‘remarkable’!
My experience is that women with chronic illness can have wonderful or shitty partners, family and friends at around the same ratio as those without disorder. The wonderful ones—those who are secure enough in their own identities that they do not feel threatened—step up, their love expanding to encompass increased demand. They discover that putting the woman first at critical moments does something important to their own lives and nature. They become better people, just as some of the characters do in Eye of a Rook.
The shitty ones are not able to make this shift, as some can’t in Rook, and so place an extra burden on the woman in having to caretake their feelings or feel guilty for the inability to meet their needs. This is generalising, of course, and there can be responses along a whole continuum, as well as extra relationship complexities I’m not considering here. But I’ve got to say it breaks my heart when I read the words of women on Facebook who’ve had to deal with demands for sex and blame when they don’t provide it, among many other things!
I’m fortunate: my now-husband and I got together a few months before I developed vulvodynia in 2000, and he’s been consistently supportive. But that’s how it should be, all things being equal, right?
Arthur isn’t based on my husband, but in writing Emily’s suffering from his perspective, I could explore how it felt to be placed in the position of partner. Emily’s dependency on Arthur is especially pronounced because it was the husbands and fathers in Victorian England who usually made decisions on women’s behalf. I was interested to see what Arthur would do with that kind of responsibility, even power. At the same time, Arthur isn’t perhaps your typical Victorian man, and writing his sensitivity and care for his wife became a way for me to upset the kinds of generalisations we make about people in that era. I was also interested in comparing and contrasting the two responses: Arthur’s and Duncan’s.
Could you share some feminist recommendations; which authors, books, podcasts, social media, are you reading, listening to, following right now?
There have been some fabulous books come out over the last year or so. I’ve especially enjoyed Unlike the Heart, by Nicola Redhouse, for its deeply embodied response to motherhood and psychoanalysis in the modern era; Imperfect, by Lee Kofman, which so skillfully interweaves anecdote and ethnographic research in its exploration of bodily surfaces and their markings; Pain and Prejudice, by Gabrielle Jackson, for its detailed interrogation of how women’s pain and suffering, including her own, is under-recognised, misunderstood and mistreated; Show Me Where it Hurts, by Kylie Maslen, which plunges the reader into the author’s lived experience of endometriosis, while also making valuable links to cultural representations of pain; and Hysteria, by Katerina Bryant, for its wise, bold, thoughtful and intelligent exploration of disorder at the fulcrum of psychiatry and biology, and the author’s empathetic response to similarly placed women in history. I also very much enjoyed Tegan Bennett Daylight’s essay ‘Vagina’ (in The Details) and her demand for writing and literature that brings women’s bodies to the fore.
A favourite podcast episode is actually ‘The Politics of Health’, from the Feminist Writers Festival! This conversation between Dr Asiel Adan Sanchez, Katerina Bryant and Kit McMahon really opens up the problematics of the treatment of disorder that doesn’t fit an established medical model and passionately argues for person-centred treatment. I was so impressed by all the participants, and I loved Katerina’s quiet, considered and certain voice, which reproduced the voice in her book. I also enjoy Sisteria Podcast and Reading Women. I listen to a number of podcasts around vulvodynia and pelvic pain, including The V Hive, The Hidden World of Women, Bodies and Tight Lipped.
In social media, I just join in when there’s an interesting conversation going! Again, there are plenty of V-related groups as well as individual feminists, some already mentioned. Facebook is terrific for women with vulvodynia, with groups based in Australia and overseas offering reassurance and a sense of community, as well as helpful research breakthroughs.