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Our Bodies, Our Hells

The headache that wouldn't die, an anthropological look at fat, and a diluted natural history of blood.



ALL IN MY HEAD: An Epic Quest To Cure An Unrelenting, Totally Unreasonable, and Only Slightly Enlightening Headache | Paula Kamen

In the wake of the shitstorm kicked up by the impolitic comments of Harvard president Lawrence Summers on women's possibly weaker aptitude for higher math and science, any argument giving off even a whiff of biological determinism is bound to be eyed with suspicion. So local writer Paula Kamen deserves a pat on the back for, if nothing else, sticking with the publication date for this new memoir, a chronicle of her 14-year quest to treat one stinker of a headache.

As her unwieldy subtitle indicates, the story is an epic--the tale of her odyssey to find relief from what she describes as "the almost continuous sensation of forks twisting into various trigeminal-nerve endings behind my eyes, as if they were trying to spear and wind up spaghetti," which came upon her suddenly one day in 1991 as she was putting in her contact lenses.

Her journey takes her from Lake Shore Drive specialists to chiropractors, osteopaths, acupuncturists, shrinks, and massage therapists, none of whom can provide more than temporary relief. She falls in and out of love with alternative medicine--detailing with frank, wry humor her flirtation with a host of new age cures, from light therapy to magnets to "immersion in lavender"--and, later, finds herself in a dangerously dependent relationship with some cute 0.5 milligram tabs of Xanax. She tries surgery, she tries Botox; nothing works.

Kamen is a dogged researcher, and she peppers her discursive story with information gleaned from the other "tired girls" she's met and interviewed along the way, as well as sidebars detailing everything from off-label drug use to trepanation. By the end of 318 pages she slowly, grudgingly comes to realize that, as the 12-step mantra goes, peace may well come from accepting that which she cannot change. Adopting a patchwork approach to pain relief that could serve as a prescription for all manner of existential ailments, she takes solace where she can find it: a little acupuncture, a little Tavist-D, a little Buddhist detachment, a little cable TV.

Kamen's first two books tackled, respectively, third-wave feminism and young women's attitudes toward sex. Here she makes the case that chronic pain is, among other things, a feminist issue. As she points out, elusive "neurosomatic" conditions such as chronic daily headache, migraine, and the sketchily defined fibromyalgia affect women at far higher rates than men, yet they remain poorly understood--and often misdiagnosed--by the medical community. Twentieth-century feminists fought bitterly to liberate women from charges of hysteria and neurosis. Has society finally come far enough, asks Kamen, "to recognize the natural 'negative' or 'weak' parts of women's bodies"? It's a proposition bound to make old-school feminists nervous. But only thus, she argues, will science ever creep closer to finding a cure. --Martha Bayne

Paula Kamen

When: Wed 3/16, 7:30 PM

Where: Barbara's Bookstore, 1218 S. Halsted

Price: Free

Info: 312-413-2665

FAT: The Anthropology Of An Obsession | Don Kulick and Anne Meneley, eds.

Arriving as it did in January, right in the middle of America's annual Calvinist recoil from holiday excess, Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession provides welcome distraction in the form of a blessedly evenhanded and wide-ranging 14-essay anthology. This fascinating, thoughtful book pushes past our usual cultural retreads of "fat" by opening the word to a wide range of contexts and meanings. Fat includes essays about fat pornography (straight and gay), Spam, plastic surgery in Brazil, self-deluding coffee orders at Starbucks (according to Margaret Willson's essay, people ask for skim milk and then doctor their drinks with cream from the thermos), a regional Italian delicacy of cured lard, the late rapper Big Pun and other fat icons of hip-hop, olive oil, and a Portuguese saint who gained holy status by subsisting solely on communion wafers--among others.

All the essays but one were written by anthropologists, and their academic approach allows them to examine the mixed meanings of fat in food and in people in thought-provoking detail. Some of the most memorable pieces study foreign cultures: Fat opens with an engrossing look at Arabs in nomadic Nigerian communities who value and cultivate fat above all in feminine beauty because "weighty immobility" signals a woman's ability not to work. Another piece examines, on the flip side of liposuction, a long-held myth among Andeans of South America of the pishtaco, a murdering white demon who carves the "good" fat from indigenous people and sells it to manufacturers of first-world products like cosmetics and soaps. Other strong essays include a poignant look at lipodystrophy--in which body fat is redistributed or atrophies as a result of HIV treatments, irreparably changing one's looks--and the Spam article, which studies the dietary role the canned meat plays in separating the natives (who eat it) from the transplants (who don't) in Hawaii.

There are no clunkers in Fat--other than perhaps the last essay, on fat activism, which is written by an activist and contains no real analysis. The best thing this book does is get us to look around, notice things besides ourselves, and increase our lipoliteracy, as one essay calls the way we look for meaning in fat. In a country where fat or the lack of it is perceived as an expression of Randian determination and personal will, Fat points out that none of this is as under our control as we might think. --Elizabeth M. Tamny

FIVE QUARTS: A Personal and Natural History of Blood | Bill Hayes

As the boyfriend of a PWA, Bill Hayes gets a lot of mileage out of his mate's immunodeficiency. He's forever going on about the poor guy's blood tests, his meds, and his trips to the doctor--of which Hayes has never missed one, he notes up front. Just as Hayes's chronic insomnia does for his 2001 memoir on the subject, Sleep Demons, his fella's disease gives street cred to this book's mostly interesting digressions on sanguinary history and science. These can be condensed into just over two pages--and they are, in the press materials that came with the book. Hayes's publicist seems to know better than his editor what a bloodthirsty public wants. What Hayes stresses instead, and goes on for most of the book about, could be represented by a much smaller list:

(1) Steve the boyfriend has a large comic-book collection.

(2) Hayes's sister gave up life in a convent in a show of support for his sexual preference.

(3) Steve and Bill are friends with Maurice Sendak.

Annoying indulgences like these clutter what could have been a neat compendium of well-researched gore lore. Hayes details some staggeringly bad medicine, from the ancient practice of bloodletting to a description of an early, ill-advised AIDS treatment that involved removing blood from the patient's body, heating it to kill the virus, then returning it to the donor, a practice that killed at least one poor soul. Some medical misunderstandings have left interesting scars on the culture at large. The crippling circulatory disease known today as porphyria, which is aggravated by garlic and sunlight, has been connected to early vampire myths. The centuries-old expression "blue blood" originated in northern Spain, when Castilians differentiated themselves from duskier Moors by the visibility of their veins. The broad implications of how medical ignorance endures long after mysteries are solved are fascinating enough on their own, as are the stories of the researchers who first shone the light of science on them. If only Hayes could have suppressed the personal side of this book--but enough about blood, let's talk about me--he'd have written an absorbing natural history. --Mike Sula

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