Guest blogger Josephine Taylor hopes her historical novel will shine a light on a condition many women have but most don’t discuss
I’m always reassured when I hear other writers advise, write what you feel passionate about, because that’s why I wrote Eye of a Rook.
I was angry. Angry that so few people knew about a condition that was so debilitating and that affected so many women, including me: vulvodynia. And I felt frustrated and helpless – at least at the beginning, way back in 2000. Then, in 2003, I started writing about my experiences, and I began to feel more in control, more an agent in my own life. I researched and wrote and eventually began a PhD, which turned into a memoir – a kind of embedded sociological detective story that delved into the history of vulvar pain and hysteria, and that explored more recent understandings of pain that won’t leave, from psychoanalysis, psychiatry, neurophysiology, feminist studies… The resulting investigative memoir, Vulvodynia and Autoethnography, won several awards, but it was an unwieldy beast from a publisher’s perspective. So, while I continue to draw material from it for my personal essays, with many published, I’ve left a full-length memoir to one side – for the moment at least!
After I finished my PhD in 2011 the pressure inside me remained. I knew that somewhere between 10% and 28% of all women would experience vulvodynia in their lifetime, so how could I contribute to beneficial change for them? What was I to do about the BIG story I wanted to get out into the world? I had no conscious idea. Fortunately, my creative life had its own plans, and at a writing workshop in 2013, two Victorian men came to life in response to a writing prompt. One was a man called Arthur, with fine brown hair and dressed in a frockcoat, and the other was a real-life surgeon I’d been researching, Isaac Baker Brown. It seemed that Arthur was consulting Brown about his wife, Emily, and contemplating the surgeon’s radical ‘solution’ to hysteria. This initial scenario turned into a short story which now also included a scene with a contemporary Perth couple driving tensely to an appointment. It seemed that the modern-day Alice had the same pain as Emily – the same pain as me – and both women needed answers. The short story, published in an anthology as ‘That Hand’, became the first chapter of Eye of a Rook.
I wrote my novel in timelines separated by almost 150 years because I wanted to show how little has changed since 1866. In fact, my research had shown that the understanding of chronic pelvic pain and specific pain states like vulvodynia has stayed largely stuck for many centuries. It’s men who have, until very recently, studied, written about and treated mystifying female complaints across recorded history, and medical understanding has been based on a male model. Knowledge skewed even further in the twentieth century, as the theories of Sigmund Freud were taken up by psychiatry then gynaecology, especially in the US. Under this influence, vulvar pain was interpreted as psychosomatic, a woman’s way of acting out unresolved unconscious conflict, a ‘defense mechanism’ against intercourse. The onus was placed upon the woman, rather than the limits of medical knowledge, with women generally told or made to feel that the pain was ‘all in her head’.
Both Alice and Emily come up against this kind of ignorance and dismissiveness, enduring harmful treatments and worse. Both reach out for help, with Alice finding community in a support group and Emily relying on her husband at a critical moment. I hope that readers will be able to relate to or empathise with Alice and Emily’s pain and the decisions all the characters make, for themselves and their futures.
My biggest hope is that my book will be read by women with vulvodynia and that it helps them in tangible ways. More, I hope that the people these women depend on read it: family, friends, GPs, physiotherapists, gynaecologists, dermatologists, urologists and psychologists. I hope that those who live with chronic pain, who may have been made to feel that they could be doing more for themselves or that they are exaggerating their symptoms, read it. I hope that Eye of a Rook will shine a light where one is so desperately needed and bring this conversation into the public domain.
Eye of a Rook is available in all good bookstores and online.
Thanks for visiting, Josephine. You can learn more about Josephine, and connect with her
At her website here.
And on Instagram .