Academic journal article Outskirts

A Conversation with the Enemy

Academic journal article Outskirts

A Conversation with the Enemy

Article excerpt

What wonder then, if, in the human body, a system so curious, so subtile and compounded, we should meet with many appearances which we cannot at all account for? The farther we push our inquiries into nature, the more shall we be convinced of our ignorance (Whytt, 1767, p. 83).

Autoethnography is the progeny of life writing (auto) and research of an anthropological nature (ethnography). It places the self within a social context, throwing illumination on private and public expressions of identity (Bochner & Ellis, 2002; Denzin, 1997; Etherington, 2004; Knowles & Cole, 2008; Reed-Danahay, 1997). Autoethnography is often initiated by a crisis that disrupts the place of the self in society. The resulting life story queries and challenges socio-cultural norms and re-evaluates the moral order in an attempt to find or create a new order in which the self might exist (Frank, 2002, p. 368).

My PhD thesis is an autoethnography. Distress and anger prompted the recollection of my first debilitating years with vulval pain, or vulvodynia: the crisis. The narrative developed into 'a wider investigation into the manifestations of vulvodynia in other women in the past and the present, analysing, in the process, inadequate conceptualisations of genital pain in medicine and psychology' (p. 2): query, challenge and re-evaluation. (Unless otherwise indicated, quotations in this article are drawn from my PhD thesis, Vulvodynia and Autoethnography (2011).) Guided by unfolding life events and inner promptings, my methodological approach found expression through a thesis form that intermingled memoir, theory and speculation: 'The project began to determine its own trajectory, ultimately developing into a complicated life/research praxis in which thought, feeling, body and soul converged' (p. 2).

As my own life was primary source material, I decided to retain the journey of discovery that characterised the thesis narrative arc. The thesis is, therefore, a detective story: an embedded sociological investigation into the startling discrepancy between prevalence and knowledge regarding the medical condition, vulvodynia. Informed by a feminist sensibility, it traverses diverse fields of knowledge, including psychoanalysis, feminist body scholarship, studies in hysteria, trauma models and neurophysiology.

In this article, I focus on my research and writing practice as it evolved during and after the writing of the thesis. My methodology consists of a conversation with an enemy conducted most notably within my body, and through dreams and serendipity, so, after a brief introduction, I will elucidate the methodology under these three sub-headings. My thesis continues to provide source material for memoir, essays and fiction, therefore I will include examples from these different genres to illustrate the process through which the enemy became my reflexive guide.

A Conversation

It began in April 2000. An assault on that most private and vulnerable part of the female body: the vulva. An attack of such ferocity and duration that I was forced to surrender professional and personal life roles. No longer a psychotherapist or educator, no longer a lover, I withdrew from society and tried to heal.

Vulvodynia: Chronic unexplained vulval pain lasting three months or longer.

Notwithstanding all these outward evidences of physical suffering, she had the moral fortitude to hold herself on the couch, and implored me not to desist from my efforts if there was the least hope of finding out anything about her inexplicable condition. (Sims, 1861, p. 357)

Prevalence: 16-25% of all women may experience a form of vulvodynia at some point during their lifetime (e.g. Reed et al., 2012).

So commonly is it met with at least, that it becomes a matter of surprise that it has not been more generally and fully described. (Thomas, 1880, p. 145)

An enemy had attacked my body. Or was my body the enemy?

My vulva aches and burns. …

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