by Kaitlyn Blythe
The last five years have seen a surge in memoirs by women examining their lives through the lens of societal marginalisation, thrusting experiences usually dismissed or ignored into the public eye. The marginalised experience is made undeniable through the author’s intimate disclosures, concretising the existence of whole, complex humans behind demographic labels such as disabled, person of colour, queer, and so on. In Kylie Maslen’s debut Show Me Where It Hurts, she firmly joins this coterie of writers through ten essays that look at her twenty years of invisible illness – brushed off by doctors, misunderstood by friends and co-workers, deemed too complicated by new lovers – and locates herself within pop culture, finding comfort and representation even in media (such as SpongeBob memes or a Lorde interview) that might not have had sick women in mind. It is a worthy read that does not mystify ‘female’ illness (Maslen’s diagnoses include endometriosis and bipolar 2 disorder, conditions with a gendered history of being written off by doctors as ‘hysteria’), but rather shows the ordinariness of constant, huge, belittled, life-altering pain.
The essay ‘Retirement, Living’ explores the author’s financial insecurity within her broader social context as a disabled millennial woman in Australia. Maslen juxtaposes research data and social policy with her personal fear, a dread that looms over many young Australians: where will I live as I age? For Maslen, non-conventional understandings of friendship and familial bonds have to be woven to mend the gaping holes in the societal safety net. She reframes the experience of watching the TV show Friends when you are not one of the titular friends, but rather the mentally ill roommate Eddie who is the butt of their jokes for a few episodes and then kicked out, never to be thought of again. Where do the Eddies go? Indeed, Maslen asks, ‘Why do all the support systems we create seemingly stop at an age where it is assumed that we have created a family who will care for us?’ This question is especially poignant as other essays in the book illuminate the difficulties of dating while sick (‘A Playlist For The Love Sick’), and the reproductive complications of endometriosis (‘Creation’).
It is a worthy read that does not mystify ‘female’ illness, but rather shows the ordinariness of constant, huge, belittled, life-altering pain.
In ‘Ask Me How I Am’, an essay originally published in Kill Your Darlings, Maslen humanises self-medication by generously describing a time in which she relied on alcohol, weed and pills to manage her untreated pelvic pain. By laying out each step in that journey, she invites the reader to see the whole story behind the woman with unwashed hair shoved under a baseball cap doing her grocery shop at the liquor store. She illustrates a person using every resource available to them to survive, to manage the pain of undiagnosed conditions, who has been failed by the medical establishment but must still find a way to work, pay rent and show up in her life.
Maslen is at her strongest in the confessional style used for ‘Ask Me How I Am’, illuminating chronic illness through the vivid specifics of her own life. The essays ‘Creation’ and ‘The Fetishisation of Frida’ sit uncomfortably within the collection for this reason: in them, she writes on the cultural significance of Beyoncé and Frida Kahlo, the commentary on these women of colour couched in what they mean to a middle class white Australian woman. While she makes a salient point about how Kahlo’s politics are often ignored so the artist can be reduced to ‘inspiration porn’, the question must be asked: did it need to be made by this voice? It brings to mind something Maxine Beneba Clarke said on a panel of otherwise all-white women authors in 2016, about writing her memoir The Hate Race after not seeing stories that reflected her experience as a woman of colour in middle class Australia: ‘If a memoir is intended to be published, the author should ask: why is this important, why is my story different, why would people be interested, what does it add, long-term, to public dialogue?’
Perhaps I was reminded of that 2016 panel after seeing that Show Me Where It Hurts was included in yet another all-white middle class women line-up of memoirs, this time for The Guardian. As the Guardian article acknowledges, ‘it’s no coincidence that we are three middle class, white women who have been able to access the resources and support required to write books’. When university-educated white women continue to be the main cohort (outside of university-educated white cis men, of course; can’t forget them) getting platforms for memoirs – chronic illness memoirs in particular – it is always worth asking whether ours are the most fitting voices to add to public dialogue on any given subject. In feminist literature, white non-disabled voices tend to dominate, and in disability representation it is white cis men who have the most privilege (thus the need for memoirs like Show Me Where It Hurts that intersect disability with gender). But the fact is that disabled women exist in great numbers – in ‘Retirement, Living’ Maslen reveals the remarkable statistic that ‘nearly 10 per cent of Australia’s population is made up of disabled women’. For disabled women of colour, there exist further erasures; and for white disabled women, with our voices tending to dominate a discourse that affects 1 in 10 Australians, this uncomfortable truth cannot be overlooked.
She illustrates a person using every resource available to them to survive, to manage the pain of undiagnosed conditions, who has been failed by the medical establishment but must still find a way to work, pay rent and show up in her life.
Ultimately, Show Me Where It Hurts is a book about a disabled woman wishing for community, overloaded with the massive amount of admin required to survive another day with chronic illness. Adolescence and young adulthood have passed, the onset of illness has long-since occurred, diagnoses have happened, and the late thirties are here – and you’re still living month to month, renting with no savings, watching SpongeBob SquarePants and eating corn chips in bed. (I might relate. A lot.) The often unspoken drudgery of a chronically ill life that doesn’t fit an ‘inspirational’ disability narrative – circular conversations with doctors, specific comfort foods, reheating wheat bags, texting an emoji because you’re too fatigued to translate how you’re feeling into words – will be fiercely familiar to many and hopefully eye-opening to many more. The collection includes a magnificent bibliography at the end, the book itself a lovingly curated playlist of popular songs, artists, memes and shows for the diagnosed or the seeking-diagnosis to enjoy.
Show Me Where It Hurts contains few calls to action and is not a polemic, nor does it fall into the trap that so many illness memoirs do of trying to tie a neat narrative bow around their diagnosis. As such, it puts Maslen’s experiences – of endometriosis, bipolar 2 disorder, and the hazy unidentifiable gaps between diagnoses – firmly on the record.
Kaitlyn Blythe (formerly Kaitlyn Plyley) is a Melbourne-based writer and performer. Her writing has been published by Junkee, The Sydney Morning Herald, Seizure, The Lifted Brow, and more. In 2019, Kaitlyn received Copyright Agency’s Ignite Grant and The Wheeler Centre’s Hot Desk Fellowship to work on her chronic illness memoir, Suddenly 80.