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Women’s Autobiography & the Politics of Suffering

Writers and artists often struggle with whether or not to write about physical suffering, especially their own. The general care of the physical body, and especially a suffering physical body, is often a site of political negotiation. The body intersects with religion and politics, and the perception regarding regulation, whether that’s birth control, abortion, or disease, shifts according to cultural beliefs. In women’s autobiography, we see the discourse of politics and suffering more intimately considered and discussed. In order to illustrate the politics of suffering, I chose to analyze three autobiographical texts.

Paula by Isabel Allende and Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams reflect the movement of women’s autobiography to include a political discourse alongside an intimate, personal story. Similarly, the Diary of Frida Kahlo reveals an intimate depiction of a public, Surrealist artist and political icon. Allende, Williams and Kahlo push even further in their writings to depict the earth’s connection to life, which has been radically abused and forgotten on many levels by society. The three artists illustrate that life is the earth—and they also depict the symbolic death of the earth in relation to the suffering and death of a woman’s body.

Like Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, Allende’s Paula captures the emotional suffering of three women (grandmother, mother, daughter) that develops from the physical suffering of one woman in the family. While Williams pushes to show a heritage of suffering from cancer that encompasses most of the women in her family, Allende’s focus is on her daughter’s illness and coma. Kahlo’s visual art, in both her published paintings and her private (now published) Diary, reflects the suffering of a woman who paints and writes about her motley selves. Kahlo’s work reveals the mother-daughter bond inside one person, and her Diary displays a pantheon of selves within one body.

While Kahlo endures her own pain from polio and a trolley accident that leads to dozens of reconstructive surgeries and treatments, Allende and Williams face the physical suffering of another woman whom they love deeply. Allende’s daughter suffers from a genetic disease, porphyria, and remains in a coma. Williams’ mother battles cancer, as well as her family’s reaction to the disease. Allende and Williams are challenged by the shifting mother-daughter bond created by disease and frustrated by their inability to understand suffering and the treatments of modern medicine.

When Allende dreams one night that her daughter has flown into the sky and is dying, she wakes and runs to the hospital to make sure that Paula is still alive. Allende’s mother meets her at the hospital and interprets the dream, revealing that the entire dream points to Allende’s fears abut her own alienation and death. Allende’s mother says, “The female condition is a disgrace, Isabel, it’s like having rocks tied to your ankles so you can’t fly.”

Similarly, Williams confronts the disease of her mother and her own desire to alter her mother’s suffering. When her mother expresses dissatisfaction with the level of pain since her operation, Williams will not listen: “In my mind, I don’t think she is trying hard enough. She has abandoned the pain medication and relaxation tapes. In Mother’s mind, we are not listening to what she is saying.” Sometimes, Williams feels the desire to escape her mother’s pain, but she is uncertain about expressing her need to run away: “I feel like a failure because I am losing my compassion.”

Finding and losing compassion surround the suffering within Williams’ story, and she notes the reactions of others to a suffering person. She finds that doctors and family members distance themselves from the diseased person. Williams’ father fights the suffering of his dying wife, which is taking over their home. Williams writes of the confrontation with her father’s grief: “His eyes were red with rage. His voice pinned me against the wall. ‘My home will not be turned into a hospital. Enough is enough. I can’t take it anymore…. As soon as Diane lapses into a coma, I’m taking her to the hospital. Someone else can deal with it—by then it won’t matter anyway.’” Through her own distancing and the separation of others from physical suffering, Williams finds that an individual’s pain affects many people: “An individual doesn’t get cancer, a family does.” In spite of the family’s cancer and because of an individual’s suffering, people often desire an escape from pain as Williams’ father did.

Unlike Allende and Williams, Kahlo does not focus on the physical suffering of another person as her subject. The entries and visual art in her Diary detail the constant torture of her body and the emotions that accompany a pain that is difficult to share with others. Often, she writes of her “madness,” which symbolizes the isolation and shame she feels because of her physical pain. She asks, “Why did the others support me with their labor?” as if the people in her life should have allowed her to suffer alone. Her question about the support of others echoes the worry and dedication Allende gives to her daughter and the companionship and comfort Williams offers her mother. While Kahlo questions the dedication of others, she discovers a shared pain with the Earth—its landscapes, plants, animals, and past civilizations, but she constantly questions the legitimacy of expressing the condition of suffering: “There is nothing more precious than laughter—it is strength to laugh and lose oneself. to be light. Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing ‘man’ has but I’m sure that animals suffer, and yet they do not exhibit their ‘pain’ in ‘theatres’ neither open nor ‘closed’ (their ‘homes’), and their pain is more real than any image that any man can ‘perform’ as painful.” In a sense, Kahlo devalues her own suffering and the expression of her pain in the paintings she creates. However, her revelation concerning the animals also connects her shared pain to theirs. As she writes a few pages later, “Nobody is separate from anybody else—Nobody fights for himself. Everything is all and one. Anguish and pain—pleasure and death are no more than a process for existence….” In Kahlo’s paintings, the landscapes of the earth—its plants, animals, mountains, and valleys—are her constant companions and share the same “process for existence.”

from The Diary of Frida Kahlo

Similarly, Allende contrasts the landscapes of her own, active body with her daughter Paula’s motionless body. The stark interior of the hospital, which she describes as a “gigantic building intersected by corridors where it is never night and the temperature never changes” and Paula’s physical bondage contrast with the lush exterior of Allende’s childhood in Chile and her own physical experiences within nature. In the hospital, Paula is surrounded by white, synthetic daylight; Allende discovers that “day is captive in the electrical lights and summer in the heating.” She writes about her daughter suffering in that landscape: “When I shook you, you looked at me with glassy, dilated eyes, staring through me toward another horizon, and then suddenly you were still as death, not breathing. (…) From that moment, life stopped for you. And for me. Together we crossed a mysterious threshold and entered a zone of inky darkness.” In contrast, when Allende relates her childhood stories to Paula, the stories are full of sensuous details. The landscape in the forests of Chile is bountiful, colorful and moist: “Effortlessly, I walk and walk along the narrow, misty paths, yet never leave the undiscovered world surrounded by century-old trees, fallen trunks, strips of aromatic bark, and roots bursting through the earth like mutilated, vegetal hands. (…) Time and time again I have tried to recapture the emotion that forest stirs in me, a feeling more intense than the most perfect orgasm, than the longest ovulation.”

Comparatively, Williams’ mother’s debilitating cancer contrasts with Williams’ work of exploring, observing, and documenting nature as a conservationist and environmental activist. Williams’ mother Diane travels to and from the hospital for surgeries and treatments, and each time the procedure becomes more distant, ascetic and rigorous. When Diane begins radiation treatments, they “drew a grid over her belly with a magic marker” like a “bull’s eye”, and the radiologist tells her that she has “less than a forty percent chance of surviving this cancer”, and finally, Williams’ mother says, “He rearranged the machinery above me, rearranged my body on the stainless steel slab, and then walked out of the room to zap me and protect himself.” In contrast to Diane’s constant trips to the hospital, Williams makes frequent trips to the rising Great Salt Lake and often finds an escape there: “I love to watch the gulls soar over the Great Basin. It is another trick of the lake to lure gulls inland. On such days as this, when my soul has been wrenched, the simplicity of flight and form above the lake untangles my grief. ‘Glide’ the gulls write in the sky—and, for a few brief moments, I do.” The contrast in the two landscapes present in the lives of Williams and her mother reveals why Williams cannot accept that her mother is dying. She admits her inability to embrace change in her mother’s life and also the life of the Great Salt Lake, “I have refused to believe that Mother will die. And by denying her cancer, even her death, I deny her life. (…) I hurt Mother through my own desire to be cured. I continue to watch the gulls. Their pilgrimage from salt water to fresh becomes my own.” Even though Williams initially clings to her mother’s recovery, she tries to reevaluate her approach to change by listening to her mother’s needs. When Williams witnesses the struggling and faltering wildlife around Great Salt Lake, she understands the cyclical changes of death are evident in all forms of life, and she strives to create a voice for those who internalize destruction and/or live with a disease.

Williams reveals the abuse of the Earth’s body and the resulting deaths: the birds, her mother, grandmothers, snakes, plants, and her own mental energy. In acts of civil disobedience, she protests the nuclear bomb tests that take place in the Nevada desert, and strives to liberate a one-breasted clan of women from Utah. In “writing autobiography”, bell hooks writes, “This death in writing was the liberatory.” And Williams tells the story of how these women, killed by cancer, have affected her life and how they cannot tell their own stories. She writes, “I am slowly, painfully discovering that refuge is not found in my mother, my grandmother, or even the birds of Bear River. My refuge exists in my capacity to love. If I can learn to love death then I can begin to find refuge in change.”

Change in the lives of Allende, Williams, and Kahlo reflects concerns about secrecy and silence. bell hooks finds, “Secrecy and silence—these were central issues. Secrecy about family, about what went on in the domestic household was a bond between us—was part of what made us family. There was a dread one felt about breaking that bond.” In Allende’s Paula, she details the family myths surrounding her grandmother and speaks to the spirits of the dead. While visiting Paula in the hospital, Allende and her mother pray to the spirits. Similarly, Williams discovers that the ancient Fremont people (who once inhabited the Great Basin) have secrets to reveal as well. The realization that she can “accommodate change”, along with events of the archaeological dig connected to the Fremont people, lead Williams to challenge the act of secrecy within her family and within the political discourse. First, she questions the Tempest family’s religion and Mormon traditions: “In Mormon religion, formal blessings of healing are given by men through the Priesthood of God. Women have no outward authority. But within the secrecy of sisterhood we have always bestowed benisons upon our families. Mother sits up. I lay my hands on her head and in the privacy of women, we pray.” Then, she writes about the nuclear bomb detonations and questions her own memories. She breaks the rules of silence imposed by her family, her religion, and her government—and as a result testifies before Congress about women’s health care—but she respects the processes of nature. In her article, “Resisting Autobiography: Out-Law Genres and Transnational Feminist Subjects,” Caren Kaplan reminds us that “the construction of a political entity that can agitate for change in Western democratic social structures requires the support of cultural institutions such as literature.”

All three artists, Allende, Williams, and Kahlo witness political exploitation while they are children. By focusing on the personal and political conditions of the physical body and the earth, the three women reveal the intimate connection with the politics of suffering. While Williams recalls a memory of the nuclear bomb detonations in Nevada, Allende reveals the political conditions of Beirut during the Suez Canal crisis. In her Diary, Kahlo writes about witnessing the tragic ten from the window of her home: “My position was very clear. My Mother opened the balconies on Allende Street getting the wounded and hungry and to allow Zapatistas to jump over the balconies of my house into the drawing room. She tended their wounds and fed them corn gorditas…. We were four sisters….”

By writing about these political exploitations, Allende, Williams and Kahlo connect the politics of the time to the suffering of the personal, physical body, and in these three autobiographies, women’s bodies are shown to be a site of political negotiation.

Works Cited

Allende, Isabel. Paula. Trans. Margaret Sayers Peden. NY: HarperCollins Publishing, 1995.

The Diary of Frida Kahlo. Trans. Barbara Crow De Toledo & Richard Pohlenz. NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995.

hooks, bell. “writing autobiography.” Women, Autobiography, Theory. Eds. Sidonie Smith & Julia Watson. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1998: 429-432.

Kaplan, Caren. “Resisting Autobiography: Out-Law Genres and Transnational Feminist Subjects.” Women, Autobiography, Theory. Eds. Sidonie Smith & Julia Watson. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1998: 208-216.

Williams, Terry Tempest. Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. NY: Random House, Inc., 1991.


Shana Thornton
Shana Thornton serves as Editor-in-Chief of Her Circle Ezine and Assistant Director of the Institute of Arts and Social Engagement. Her first novel, Multiple Exposure, reveals an intimate, ghostly portrait of the impact of war, and generations of military service, on a family. Multiple Exposure will be available for purchase on Sept. 2. Read more at http://shanathornton.wordpress.com/
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  • Shana Thornton

    Thank you, L. George, for the comment. I have pondered this idea of suffering within women’s autobiography, and hope to write some shorter pieces in InContext about other autobiographies and how those women reflect that women’s bodies are a site of political negotiation. Sometimes, women’s bodies are used, for example as with extremist governments and organizations who forbid women in some countries to leave their homes without being accompanied by a man. And, sometimes, women use their own bodies to make a political demand, as with the American suffragists who picketed and then went on a hunger strike in jail. But I think most often what happens, aside from these two types of extremes, is another extreme and that’s when mostly male lawmakers implement policies that affect women’s bodies and women’s freedoms. I wonder if it’s fear or the satiation of a desire for control and power…most likely, a combination.
    Another aspect of this topic that’s often discussed is how women participate (some are forced and some aren’t) in the political and physical debilitation of other women, and foot binding is one historical example.
    Like you, “I wish that I had a conclusion that would make sense of everything regarding suffering.” But, the more I discuss it, the broader it seems to become, and yet, I agree that it’s necessary to discuss it as a part of the human condition and the inevitable.

  • L. George Alexander

    A very thoughtful and well-written essay about the suffering of women. Recent news of political wars in the USA are happening on the battlefield of women’s health. It is true that”women’s bodies are shown to be a site of political negotiation.” Old battles fought and won by women years ago, are dug up again so that the same issues can be fought anew such as birth control.

    It is poignant that the three authors chosen here have different but similar stories. It certainly gives me something to ponder although I am part of the same story, all women are to some extent. We are not just women but are viewed as objects and often the glue that holds relationships together.

    In the novel, “The Cat’s Table” by Michael Ondaatje, the male characters try to protect the women they love but end up unable to do so. Sometimes, men think they can change and alter the springs of life while women who live in miniature spheres of the earth and of life and death, know differently. Whether this plays a part of what is currently happening in the political world itself, I don’t know. I have a friend who says down deep every man fears women or the one that brought them into the world. Perhaps.

    I like to think that women should ponder the things mentioned in this piece as none of us are immortal and will face a last breath someday. We also need to recognize that our family members do not think of us only as human beings but so much more so that when we become ill it affects everything. In the end, we all die alone whether it is through cancer or something else. I wish I had a conclusion that would make sense of everything regarding suffering. I don’t except that it will continue to happen. It is good that these issues are reflected in literature and written about, not because things can be changed but that we might be more prepared to face the inevitable.

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