"The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language runs dry."
-- Virginia Woolf, "On Being Ill"
With this, Abby Norman begins her tale of personal pain, self-advocation, and systemic struggle. Each chapter starts with such a quote, and they remind the reader that Ask Me About My Uterus is not a new story, but one that many women and femmes have experienced and chronicled throughout history. While the book is more memoir than scientific study, at its heart is Norman’s diagnosis of endometriosis.
If you don’t know too much about “endo” (like me before reading this book), it is commonly believed to be caused by tissue from the inner lining of the uterus, the endometrium, growing on the outside of the uterus. Doctors know so little about the disease that even this basic definition is dubious. Norman explains that there have been instances when the endometrium tissue has been found in places other than just outside of the uterus. Stranger still, in a few cases this same tissue was discovered in cis-men, who do not have uteruses. These facts beg the question whether the tissue is truly from the uterus and highlight how little definitive research has been done on endometriosis. Rising awareness of the disease lead some to think of endometriosis as a recently growing disease, but, like mental illness and ADHD, it has been around for quite some time. Doctors are just finally taking it seriously.
Abby Norman is not a doctor herself, or even a college graduate as of the writing of this book. However, she is extensively educated on endometriosis. This is not because she has any great love of uterine sciences. Norman knows about endometriosis because she was forced to learn about it in order to save her own life, due to the failure of her doctors and historically sexist medical research. She recounts her experiences with doctors throughout her life who told her that her pain was all in her head, sometimes through dismissive prescriptions and sometimes explicitly. But Norman explains that this disregard for women’s pain goes beyond the doctor’s office. She emancipated herself at fifteen to escape abusive family members, including her mother and grandmother, and Norman, with the incredible grace of hindsight, examines how sexism failed them too. They grew up in a society which required women to bear pain with a silent smile. And this historical sickness shaped Norman’s destiny no less than the disease in her body. Just as her foremothers suffered, so would she.
In Ask Me About My Uterus Abby Norman tells her own story. She was diagnosed with endometriosis, but even though that answer was so hard to reach, it only unearthed more questions. There was no simple cure, no simple anything, and if it wasn’t for Norman’s perseverance, she may not be alive today. It’s not an easy read, but it’s an important one, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.