Excerpts > Spring 2004

Constance Studer
Review of
I Knew A Woman: The Experience of the Female Body, by Cortney Davis
I Knew A Woman : The Experience of the Female Body by Cortney Davis (Random House, New York, 2001, 263 pp.) hardcover and paperback.

Reviewed by Constance Studer

Cortney Davis has written a remarkable book about the poetry and science of healing, about protocol and ritual, gnosis and diagnosis, and above all else she writes about the blossoming of hope. The laying on of hands. I Knew A Woman is a lyrical manifesto of Carl Jung’s observation that “every personality has a story. Derangement happens when the story is denied. To heal, the patient had to rediscover his story.” Davis writes that it is just as important to hear her patients’ stories as it is to palpate abdomens or check reflexes.

From her own experience as a patient, Davis knows that patients can feel violated, vivisected, objectified. Women’s reproductive organs are not only real internal organs requiring dilation and probing, but are also symbolic, a forbidden passageway to both sensual and sexual pleasure. Under the pretext of a college physical, her first pelvic exam was performed by a family physician with her mother in the room. There she was, feet in metal stirrups, bare knees splayed, small sheet covering little. There was no explanation in the room except the physician’s. Be still, endure, was the message she received about being a young female patient. The exam room is a microcosm of the world of vulnerability, of visceral and personal invasion, where a woman’s voice often is not heard.

Davis writes about her first contact with nurses. She was 12 when a horse-back riding accident dislodged a blood clot:

It was the nurses who kept me company. Young, dressed in starched white uniforms with cupcake bonnets or winged caps that made them look like angels, they cajoled and mothered me. If I needed them, they appeared at my bedside instantly. I thought the polished hospital floor must be made of ice and the nurses must be skaters, whooshing quietly from room to room with thin sharp blades on their white shoes.

Davis, now a nurse practitioner, shows caring by paying attention to the details: a warm blanket for unveiled bodies, lambs wool covering the cold stirrups. The exam room is that sacred space where women tell what’s on their minds, where nurses inflict pain in pursuit of healing. As Davis takes in their body language through her eyes and hands, their stories become part of her own. Have you had... Do you take... Where does it hurt?

Drawing on her own experiences as a welfare mother and an impoverished single parent, Davis weaves the stories of four women, whom she cares for in the clinic, with her own. There is Lila, who is so thin that her bones stand out against her pale skin, a homeless, pregnant teenager, whom Davis tries to convince to go to a shelter for battered women. Lila has tried to kill herself twice:

When I see Lila, her shaggy hair and her untied shoes, I think of myself, newly divorced with no money for clothes, standing in line in the consignment shop but charging a stereo on my one overburdened credit card so I could listen to the Moody Blues after work and pretend that our family was like all the others. When I see Lila, seemingly so disconnected from all that’s going on about her, I remember when I was so desperate for money I pawned a necklace my mother had given me for my sixteenth birthday.

Eleanor, a middle-aged housewife, math teacher and veteran of many pelvic exams, is evaluated because of light spotting after sex. Davis is with her when she must return to surgery because of bleeding after her cervical biopsy, when she undergoes a hysterectomy for uterine cancer. Davis’s love of language permeates the book:

The language of medicine—so musical and complex, so encoded and distancing—is second nature to me. Here at Tumor Board only as an observer, I decide it’s my job to remember that there’s a person behind the impermanent, melodious words.

Joanna, with her small heart-shaped face and all-black ensemble, is an artist who has inexplicable pain with intercourse, pain for which Davis cannot find a physical explanation. Reluctantly Joanna confides to Davis that perhaps she’s allergic to sex:

Sensuality, one of the loveliest attributes of the female body, is all around me in the clinic. Women come in smelling of soap and perfume. The Latinas arrive with their long blue-black hair just washed; when they get up from the exam table, they leave a damp butterfly imprint on the paper. Asian women lift their shirts to reveal satiny cords tied around their bellies, talismans we cannot cut or remove for fear of releasing their souls. Patients from Brazil wear iridescent spandex tights and high heels that click up and down the hallway. When Pakistani women unfold their saris, the scent of cooking spices and sandalwood wafts into the air. Joanna, when she walks into my clinic out of the damp, end-of-summer evening air, she leaves a subtle, vaporous trail.... I see women in love with their sexual potential as well as women like Joanna, who find themselves drawing back, afraid.

Renee, with her broken teeth, pocked skin and tattoos, presents a unique medical challenge because of her heroin addiction and unexpected pregnancy. Davis admits that Renee is her least favorite patient because of a long history of broken promises to abstain from taking drugs:

I realized that her remorse was real, in spite of the residents who warned me that she was just putting on a show to keep me from calling Family Services or spilling tears to keep me sitting by her side. It was then that I adopted a principle I’ve followed ever since: I decided I would believe that every patient’s pain, physical or emotional, was genuine. I would take all patients, especially Renee, at face value. I would believe what they chose to tell me. Even if what they said was not factually true, I knew there was, nevertheless, an emotional truth that I could accept. I learned to listen to the feeling behind the voice, the story behind the words.

Davis’s reward for her hard work are moments like these: Lila, now a proud mother and self-sufficient adult, brings in a picture of her baby; Eleanor comes to thank her and to say good-bye because she must change health-care providers; Joanna gives Davis photos of her watercolors of wildflowers in vibrant hues of lemon, turquoise, azure, violet; Renee proves that she has her demons under control and regains custody of her son.

Building her story like a good novel, Davis utilizes the techniques of strong characterization, believable dialogue, and dramatic scenes. Using her poetic skills to good advantage, Davis chooses her words for their sound as well as their meaning. The book moves the reader through Davis’s world of care-giving with passion and intelligence, music and grace.

Healing literally means “wholeness,” with the words “holy” and “heal” both deriving from the Anglo-Saxon “haelen,” meaning “whole.” Healing is restoration of communication within one’s self. Healing is the acceptance of pain, coming to terms with intolerable truths, surrendering. Healing is co-ordinating the meaning of illness into the totality of the patient’s life. Healing is a restoration of balance, a willingness to change. Davis is a healer of bodies and lives in the truest sense of the word.

About PS   What's New   Curr Iss   Subscriptions  Submissions   Archives  E-mail   PS Home   UNL Home