"Most People Need Women": Blackfishing the IUD by Caren Beilin
I recently read three books that speak to each other in ways that surprised me. First came Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes for One Bright Book (warning: spoilers below), followed by Alice Hattrick’s Ill Feelings, also for the podcast, and finally Caren Beilin’s Blackfishing the IUD, a book I pulled off my shelves on a whim. As it turns out, Blackfishing the IUD is similar in theme and format to Ill Feelings, while referencing Lolly Willowes and using it as a jumping off point to talk about feminism and witchery.
What a pleasure it is when one’s books speak to one another! Two of these books explore the meanings of illness — rheumatoid arthritis that developed after and perhaps was caused by the insertion of a copper IUD in Beilin’s book, and ME/CFE, or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, in Hattrick’s. Both books look at cultural meanings of illness and the ways the medical world does not know how to deal with complex, multi-system illnesses, and does not know how to deal with women in general. Both books look to literature for examples and inspiration. Both books are about the relationship of body and mind.
What is more surprising is the Lolly Willowes connection, but Beilin thinks a lot about women who opt out, which is the essence of Lolly’s story. Beilin also thinks a lot about witches, those women with secret powers who exist beyond established institutions. By way of introducing Lolly, Beilin writes, “Literature, the good literature that lasts, is preserved in amber, outside of institutions — if you want to be cosmic, the first thing is to walk out of the building,” and a bit later:
[Lolly Willowes] was about a woman who needed to walk out of the building. Her oppressive family life. She gets away from them, actually, but it’s not enough, so she becomes a witch. She speaks with Satan who unlike Augustine’s lord doesn’t care about what she does. A confession would bore him. But she schools him, “I can’t take warlocks so seriously, not as a class. It is we witches who count. We have more need of you,” and I literature.
Lolly is also rheumatic, and her brother uses this against her in an attempt to keep her from living out in the country on her own. This rheumatism is very different from Beilin’s rheumatoid arthritis, however; it’s manageable, mild, nothing that worries her. She sees what her brother is up to, and calls it a distraction and an attempt at control. Beilin’s illness by contrast is debilitating; it keeps her body from functioning and leads her mind into suicidal thoughts. But she understands Lolly and the lure of witchcraft and the freedom and power it offers. Both women are navigating institutions, trying to find their way around and out of them, trying to find the life they want to live. Trying to keep agency over their own bodies.
Blackfishing the IUD astonished and delighted me. It follows a form that has become familiar to me, that of the book-length essay, where the writer looks at a subject from a variety of angles, assembling various sources and stories and ideas that they weave into a whole. These works very often draw on personal narrative and tend to be bookish; part of their pleasure is compiling a reading list from their pages. Beilin does all this — she charts the history of IUDs and rheumatoid arthritis, she writes about the cultural role of witches, she tells personal stories, she assembles a reading list. She also includes the voices of other women. It’s a collaborative work, and we hear the testimonies of women who contributed to illness listservs and posted YouTube videos about how their lives fell apart after getting a copper IUD.
What I loved about this book is how strange, alive, and vibrant the writing feels. There are stretches of the book where Beilin writes in a straightforward, narrative style, and others where she thinks associatively, almost poetically, so the logical leaps require some thought, but that also, with some thought, are surprising and satisfying, often funny. The writing kept me on my toes. I frequently shook my head in admiration at her daring.
As the book opens, she describes arranging her library by gender and says:
In my apartment I knew, from my PhD, that this wasn’t the right moment to revel in any binaries. It would be quaint, and wrong, to discipline books by a painful and fabricated construction. It would be theoretically gauche to grab books by their little fabric crotches. But I was in the privacy of my own rented home. I would never do this at the store, the bookstore, where I arranged books all the time. I unpacked a moving library each day. At home, I separated out women from men as often happens before a great violence occurs, and I really got into it, giving my women a shelf all their own, stretching out every Brontë, one, two, three, and Kang Young-sook and I Love Dick, Corregidora, Bechdel’s complete Dykes to Watch Out For. Below were men who were amazing — Brautigan, Angel Dominguez and Rilke — the kind who have honorary vaginas for boutonnieres, but I like to lower them right down.
In the midst of this, she talks about Walter Benjamin, who unpacked his library not too long before his life began to fall apart. She talks about the bookstore, about women as objects, about Freud, about what it means to write about her illness, and then J.A. Baker, author of The Peregrine, who also suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. The book travels to so many places, but everywhere are the bodies of women, bodies that are owned, manipulated, critiqued, and ignored. Her own body is always present. Let me tell you, I won’t forget the section where she describes giving herself a coffee enema, which made me laugh and wince and shake my head once again at her daring.
Blackfishing the IUD is such a generous book. “Blackfishing,” Beilin explains, is to “destroy a cultural notion of normalcy around something, as the 2013 documentary Blackfish did for whales in captivity.” Her goal is to make sure women know that if they got a copper IUD and then their body went haywire, that they are not alone, that this has happened to many other women and they should get that IUD removed immediately, even if doctors don’t believe it’s possible that the IUD is the culprit. Most doctors don’t really know and won’t listen to women anyway. The book is a very practical warning.
Beilin is also a very generous witch figure. At the bookstore where she works, it’s witchcraft that leads her to the book her customer needs:
What else, today, will I sell? It’s witchwork, people coming in and I’m pretty poor but I have to try to heal everyone, thinking about the ailment, and problem (what they’ve already tried to read). I watch for the correct correction. I try not to look like I’m watching. I watch people a little bit with one forearm.
Most people need women. I try to flip them. I give them some, to read, or a fouler, smaller press or both. I try to move them off of this thing, these bigger books with the gaping sentences sometimes like open mouths, for anyone and also no one…
“Most people need women” — this is the idea running through the book, sometimes on the surface, sometimes underground, always there. Blackfishing the IUD is magic, a witch’s book offered to a world that needs to be healed.
New (mostly) small-press books out in the last couple months that I haven’t yet read and am adding to my TBR. All quotations below are from the publisher:
1,000 Coils of Fear by Olivia Wenzel, translated by Priscilla Layne (Catapult): “A young woman attends a play about the fall of the Berlin Wall--and realizes she is the only Black person in the audience. She and her boyfriend are hanging out by a lake outside Berlin--and four neo-Nazis show up…Engaging in a witty Q&A with herself--or is it her alter ego?--she takes stock of our rapidly changing times, sometimes angry, sometimes amused, sometimes afraid, and always passionate.”
What Goes Unsaid: A Memoir of Fathers Who Never Were by Emiliano Monge, translated by Frank Wynne (Scribe US): I really loved Monge’s novel Among the Lost, also translated by Frank Wynne. “From one of Mexico's leading writers--a memoir about three men who are driven to escape the confines of their traditional lives and roles.”
Wolfskin by Lara Moreno, translated by Katie Whittemore (Open Letter): “An intimate meditation on ambivalence and motherhood, eroticism and disappointment, family violence and failure, and ultimately, the possibility--or impossibility--of living with those you love.”
Carnality by Lina Wolff, translated by Frank Perry (Other Press): “A writer searching for inspiration in Spain goes on a darkly comic, delightfully absurd journey through an underground society.”
Till the Wheels Fall Off by Brad Zellar (Coffee House Press): “From roller rinks and record players to coin-operated condom dispensers and small-town mobsters, Till the Wheels Fall Off is a novel about an unconventional childhood among the pleasures and privations of the pre-digital era.”
The Forgery by Ave Barrera, translated by Ellen Jones and Robin Myers (Charco Press): A novel about “A failing artist turned forger, an architectural masterpiece hidden behind high walls, an impish vagabond, and some very resourceful, very intimidating twins.”
Identitti by Mithu Sanyal, translated by Alta L. Price (Astra House): “Nivedita (a.k.a. Identitti), a well-known blogger and doctoral student is in awe of her supervisor--superstar postcolonial and race studies South-Asian professor Saraswati. But her life and sense of self are turned upside down when it emerges that Saraswati is actually white.”
New on the TBR
Recently acquired (actually, a sampling of recent books acquired, since I’ve bought a lot in the last month):
Daybook: The Journal of an Artist by Anne Truitt (Scribner, 2013): I’m in the mood for journals and diaries and picked this up after seeing several people praise it: “A classic work for artists of all kinds, about reconciling the call of creative work with the demands of daily life.”
Times Square Red, Times Square Blue by Samuel R. Delany (New York University Press, 2019; originally published in 1999): I got this through Pilsen Community Book’s Bread and Roses subscription program. “Samuel R. Delany bore witness to the dismantling of the institutions that promoted points of contact between people of different classes and races in a public space, and in this hybrid text, argues for the necessity of public restrooms and tree-filled parks to a city's physical and psychological landscape.”
Melville: A Novel by Jean Giono, translated by Paul Eprile (NYRB, 2017; originally published in 1941): Jean Giono is on my list of authors I haven’t yet read that I’d really like to get to. Melville is a “literary compound of fiction, biography, personal essay, and criticism,” which sounds fabulous.
No Document by Anwen Crawford (Transit Books, 2022): “Disappeared artworks, effaced histories, abandoned futures. No Document is an exploration of loss in its many forms, embracing histories of protest and revolution, art-making and cinema, and border policing.”
Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade (Crown, 2021): I love a good group biography! “In the pivotal era between the two world wars, the lives of five remarkable women intertwined at this one address: modernist poet H. D., detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, classicist Jane Harrison, economic historian Eileen Power, and author and publisher Virginia Woolf.”
Difficult Light by Tomas Gonzalez, translated by Andrea Rosenberg (Archipelago Books, 2020; originally published in 2011): “Grappling with his son's death, the painter David explores his grief through art and writing, etching out the rippled landscape of his loss.”
The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner (NYRB, 2019; originally published in 1948): After reading and loving Lolly Willowes, this will be my next Warner. Some people love this book, some people don’t…we’ll see what I think soon.
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney (FSG, 2021): This is my current audiobook. I didn’t really like Rooney’s earlier novel Conversations With Friends, but I’m into this one. I’m not sure if Beautiful World is a better book or if Rooney works better for me on audio.
Poems 1962-2012 by Louise Glück (FSG, 2013): My current poetry book. I probably won’t read this straight through, but I just finished Glück’s first connection, Firstborn.
Pure Color by Sheila Heti (FSG, 2022): Sheila Heti is one of those authors I haven’t connected with but also don’t want to give up on. So far, Pure Color is going well.
The Cormac Report
I’ve heard people reminisce fondly about participating in their library’s summer reading program and getting prizes and having a blast. I don’t think Cormac is going to have that experience. I have twinges of guilt about it, but mostly I think it’s fine. I never participated in any summer reading program as a kid and I think I turned out okay, more or less.
I signed Cormac up for the program a year or two ago and started logging his reading, and he may have earned a prize or two, but then we just…stopped. I asked Cormac if he wanted to participate this year, and he shrugged his shoulders and said a very polite, “No, thank you.”
He’s just not a joiner, I guess. He’d rather read freely, whatever he wants whenever he wants, and doesn’t want to be bothered counting books or logging them or being a part of any program. I’ve written before about how I got permission for him to skip the reading log assignment for school, and I’m dreading the day he gets a teacher who won’t allow that. Having to keep track really does take the fun away for him. I’m very different in this respect: I think I would have liked logging the number of books I read when I was a kid. Maybe my local library didn’t have a summer program, or maybe my parents just never signed me up? Anyway, I like Cormac’s relaxed attitude and hope he can keep it for as long as possible.
Have a good week everyone!