Laurie Toby Edison


A Transgender Woman Fights Back: Julia Serano’s Open Letter to the New Yorker

Debbie says:

This blog has long been a fan of Julia Serano, author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, and Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive.


Laurie and I were both especially impressed with Serano’s “Open Letter to the New Yorker,” written in response to Michelle Goldberg’s article, “What Is a Woman? The Dispute between Radical Feminism and Transgenderism,” and published in The Advocate (but not, apparently, in the New Yorker). Goldberg approached Serano while she was writing the article, and Serano is–well, unhappy is a mild term–for how her responses to Goldberg were included.

Serano starts by dissecting the premise:

I have found that mainstream publications seem to enjoy portraying these debates under a false transgender-people-versus-radical-feminists dichotomy. (“Hey, two groups of gender-freaks just so happen to hate one another — let’s publish that!”) In reality, many transgender activists are also feminists, and TERFs* tend to be antagonistic toward many other feminists and gender/sexual minorities, including sex-positive feminists, femme/feminine people, bisexuals, and other non-lesbian-identified queer people, and sex workers, just to name a few. Really, a more accurate framework for the article would be “the dispute between radical feminists and the vast majority of feminists and LGBTQ activists who disagree with them,” but that isn’t so sexy and probably wouldn’t generate quite as many page views.

*Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists

Serano then gets into Goldberg’s initial (and final) position in the article:

Goldberg also expressed her concern about TERFs being silenced by trans folks (e.g., their events being protested or boycotted, or venues pulling out after trans people and allies complained). I explained to her that, while I believe that TERFs should be free to assemble and hold their own events if they wish, some of these situations are far more complicated than that. For instance, if an explicitly LGBTQ organization (which sports a “T” for transgender in its acronym) holds an event, wouldn’t it be somewhat hypocritical for it to host performers who tacitly support or outright advocate for trans woman-exclusion policies? Or if a college has a policy protecting students and staff from discrimination based on gender identity, and Sheila Jeffreys comes by to give a talk about her new book in which she describes trans men as “women” and trans women as “men,” and insists that the latter group are merely sexually deviant men who are trying to take over feminism (we’ll get to that in a moment), well then, there is a serious conflict of interest here!

If I say I am fat (or old or disabled or …), and you look at me and say, “You’re not fat (or old, or disabled, or …)!” you are overriding my sense of myself and my lived identity with whatever your personal definition of “fat” (or your personal aversion to the word) might be. Serano is making the very same point about gender.

And then it gets personal …

When The New Yorker fact checker contacted me to verify the parts of the article that involved me, it became clear that several passages from my book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity in which I discussed certain aspects of my sexual history were going to be included in Goldberg’s article. I got the impression that they were intended to show “my side” of the story in relation to Jeffreys depicting me as an “autogynephile.” Being naturally horrified by the possibility of having my sexual history litigated within the pages of a national magazine, I sent another email to Goldberg expressing my concerns about the inclusion of this material (I have subsequently made this and another related email publicly available here), and she told me that those passages had subsequently been removed from the final piece.

Last Monday the article came out. And I was rather dismayed to see its final form. While (thankfully) Goldberg was truthful when she said that the passages of my sexual history would be removed, she hadn’t mentioned that the article was going to include Jeffreys’s and Blanchard’s views about “autogynephilia” without any mention that the theory has been scientifically disproven. And if that weren’t bad enough, Goldberg casually mentions that Jeffreys (who is depicted as a sympathetic, if eccentric, character in the article) considers me to be an “autogynephile” without mentioning any of my arguments against the theory and Jeffreys’s hypocritical appropriation of it.

(See the link to Serano’s whole letter for a long discussion of “autogynephilia” and why it is, to be overly kind, not a reasonable descriptor of anyone.)

And then it gets even more real:

Oh, and one last thing: In the last week since you published Goldberg’s article, a teenager was stabbed in Washington D.C., because of the fact that she is transgender. Also, in the last six weeks, two trans women of color have been found brutally murdered in Baltimore, and some suspect it may be the work of a serial killer who is targeting trans women. So here’s an idea: Why don’t you publish articles about these more serious matters rather than faux journalism pieces about trans activists purportedly “oppressing” radical feminists? Oh yeah, I almost forgot: You wouldn’t get nearly as many page views…

If you haven’t read Goldberg’s article, don’t. But if you haven’t read Serano, either this essay (there’s lots more, and it’s all good!) or her books, you have a treat in store.

Visit to Sojourner Truth Archive

Laurie says:

I wrote about discovering Sojourner Truth’s cartes-de-visite in my post ” Sojourner Truth: I Sell The Shadow To Support The Substance.”

I came across the first mention of the cartes-de-visite in a video interview with Nell Painter, who has written a superb biography of Truth which I highly recommend.

Painter mentioned on the video that Sojourner Truth had used photography.  Of course, that immediately registered with me and I had to find out more. As a photographer I immediately assumed that she had taken photographs.  But when I did some reading, I learned about the cartes-devisite that she created.  Because she was not literate this was the only medium where she had complete control of her presentation.

Sojourner Truth was perhaps the most famous African-American woman in 19th century America. For over forty years she traveled the country as a forceful and passionate advocate for the dispossessed, using her quick wit and fearless tongue to fight for human rights.

Nell Painter says:  No other woman who had gone through the ordeal of slavery managed to survive with sufficient strength, poise and self-confidence to become a public presence over the long term.

… Sojourner Truth, according to the Willis/Krauthamer book Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans And the End of Slavery, understood the power of photography, and actively distributed photographs of herself:

“Those pictures were meant to affirm her status as a sophisticated and respectable “free woman and as a woman in control of her image.” The public’s fascination with small and collectible card-mounted photographs, allowed her to advance her abolitionist cause to a huge audience and earn a living through their sale. “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance,” proclaimed the famous slogan for these pictures.”

Quotes are from the previous post.

As I read her biography I was reminded again and again what is lost in the simplified potted histories of social change and reform that most of us learn.  She was born in slavery in up-state New York, grew up speaking Dutch, was emancipated when New York ended slavery, and spent as much of her life promoting religion and spiritualism as abolition and suffrage.  She is stereotypically depicted as saying  “Ain’t I a Woman” with a southern accent.  (She never said it.) Her life, and 19th century America, were complicated.

Serendipitously, my friend Geri Sullivan read my post and wrote that she would be in Detroit at the same time I planned to be there in July.  And she was going to her home town of Battle Creek on the trip.  She knew Mary Butler at the Sojourner Truth Archive  in Battle Creek and we could go there.  I was amazed and delighted!  (The archive is in Battle Creek because Truth lived there in the latter part of her life.)

The archive was planning to reframe their carte-de-visite’s of Sojourner Truth.  Because I was coming they very thoughtfully kept them unframed until I visited.  I was able to (carefully) hold them and photograph them.  I looked at them in my hands and realized I was holding something that she might have held. I’m surprised my hands didn’t shake.

We spent several hours at the archive.  Mary Butler is profoundly knowledgeable about Truth and the radical political 19th century history of Battle Creek. She was very generous with her time and her knowledge. We talked and I was able to look at a number of both documents and copies of documents that give a shape to what I know about her life.  It was a memorable afternoon and I’m grateful to both Mary and Geri.

These are the photographs I took of the cards.


sojourner truth1web_1358






I love this photograph.   The portrait feels like I can see her face across  time.

I’ll be posting again about Battle Creek, Detroit, a remarkable sculpture of Truth, the Kimball House Museum and undoubtedly more.

Full Frontal Nudity, Gender, and the Penis

[warning: contains images that may not be comfortable for workplace or other public computer constraints]

Debbie and Laurie say:

We missed Sezin Koehler’s Sociological Images post about full frontal nudity on HBO back in June. Koehler analyzes the frequent use of full frontal female nudity and the extremely rare use of full frontal male nudity on True Blood, Hung, and Game of Thrones. 

Koehler’s conclusion is:

Ultimately, nudity is rarely necessary to further a storyline.  Women’s nudity isn’t about plot, it’s about treating women as objects and men as human beings.  The problem is systemic. Women’s bodies exist in many of HBO’s varied worlds to serve men, circling us back to a culture of male entitlement that, in the case of [Elliott] Rodgers at least, led directly to violence.

We agree with Koehler’s article, and our more-or-less unique experience of photographing, writing about, and talking to and about naked men in extensive detail, when we were working on Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes makes us want to take the conversation in another direction.

Of course, not all bodies are male or female and not all penises belong to men. This post relates specifically to commercial television and movies, where trans and genderqueer bodies are extremely rare, and nearly always objectified on a different axis than we discuss here.

Here’s the thing. Women are objectified whether or not  we are depicted in the nude. Men are physically objectified more than they used to be twenty or thirty years ago (read Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Male for a treatment of this issue), but the vast majority of television and movies, are made with the tacit assumption that men are the watchers and women are the watched. In academic language, these programs are made with the “male gaze.” Shows that never show a naked woman still constantly objectify women’s bodies.

This is why an image of a small portion of a woman’s unclothed body is a nude


but only a full frontal picture of a man is a nude.



Men’s full frontal nudity isn’t shown for lots of reasons. It’s still a real taboo (and women’s full frontal nudity is not, but showing labia is). Penises (especially relaxed penises) show the natural experience of being a male human. Once again, we quote Jonathan D. Katz from his piece in the Familiar Men keynote essay:

Female nudity can be ubiquitous, but to present the male body threatens to give the lie to the rich meanings we associate with it. All of which may explain why it’s so rare to see naked or near-naked men in art, advertising, popular media, or that host of other venues in which the female body is now coin of the realm. … I think novelist Dorothy Allison said it best when she remarked that she thought the penis was the original source of the literary concept of irony, that something so small and vulnerable could be accorded such impressive powers. To see a penis is to know that it couldn’t possibly be a phallus.

As for the show Hung, which is specifically about a man with a large penis, Koehler points out that “we only get one brief glimpse of it — and not even the whole.”

The very existence of a TV show which makes the invisible central, which builds its entire plot on that-which-cannot-be-revealed says a lot about how women’s bodies–however objectified–are real to the television/movie creative world and the audience, while the essentially male feature of men’s bodies is, in our current cultural context, purely metaphorical. The show is not — it can’t be — about Ray Drecker’s penis; it’s about how we imagine, and create, our own imagery of Ray Drecker’s penis. In contrast, a show about a woman’s body is about the character’s actual body.

All pictures of bodies, clothed and nude, are laden with the gender-specific, deeply embedded overtones that have been placed there by the tens or hundreds of thousands of images of bodies we’ve seen before. The embedded message about women’s bodies is “see all of me,” and the embedded message about men’s bodies is “I get to control what you get to look at.”

Gender Neutral Toilet, Not Sideshow Attraction

Debbie says:

Lisa Wade at Sociological Images has a brief post about the sign problem for gender-neutral bathrooms. (I always thought they could just say “Everyone,” but of course there’s an argument for icons rather than words.) In case anyone hasn’t thought it out, gender-neutral bathrooms are an important safety feature for trans and gender nonconforming people who are all too frequently threatened and attacked for using the “wrong” binary gender public toilet.

She quotes Sam Killermann, a social justice comedian, who has a perfectly sensible iconic solution:


But what struck me was the option that Killermann rightly objects to, which is in use at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.


Killermann and I object to this because, as he says, “the literal interpretation of this image (a half ‘man’ half ‘woman’) is a disconcerting representation of ‘gender neutral.’” Not to mention the infantilization that happens just from choosing that size for the wheelchair user. Yes, I know, it’s approximately the “accurate” height of a person in a chair next to a standing person. It’s still infantilizing.

What struck me most about the “half man/half woman” image is how it harks back to a very common performance at carnival sideshows and vaudeville performances, where a performer (most famously Josephine Joseph) would shave, cream, and soften one side of their body, growing hair long on that side and building up a false breast, while buffing up their muscles on the other side, with short hair and perhaps a half mustache. Split clothing enhanced the effect. The highlight of this performance was usually the performer dancing alone in low light, arms around waist, creating the illusion of two people dancing.


Audiences found this fascinating and often titillating. Gender transgressive, yes. Gender nonconforming, yes. Gender neutral, hardly! Recreating this in bathroom door icons in 2014 is way less constructive than putting up a picture of a toilet. And I just don’t want restroom signs to start dancing at me, especially if I’m sleepy.

(I still love this post on bathroom door signs which  I wrote several years ago.)

At the Will of the Body, Part 3b: Doctors as Patients

Lisa Freitag says:

Dr. Lisa Freitag is a former pediatrician in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  She wrote some guest posts for us in 2013, and we are delighted to have more of her insightful presence here. This is the second half of the third (and last) part: Part 3a is here; Part 2 is here; and Part 1 is here. Part 3b has been reposted from its original posting due to technical problems.

According to Arthur Frank, whose academic theories on the doctor-patient relationship began to crystallize in his book about his own illnesses, At the Will of the Body, doctors are not really caregivers. This seems counter-intuitive, since medicine is supposed to be the most caring of professions. However, doctors do not know how to act towards their patients as persons. Frank states “I reserve the name “caregivers” for the people who are willing to listen to ill persons and respond to their individual experience.” (48) His own doctors, he says, rarely did this, instead dealing with him merely as a malfunctioning body in need of repairs. If doctors relate only superficially with others in illness, they seem unlikely to have a template for dealing with themselves as patients either.

These misconceptions are perhaps ultimately destructive to the formation of a human relationship between doctor and patient, no matter which side of the relationship he finds himself on. This is demonstrated well in the opening chapter of Sherwin Nuland’s famous book, How We Die, where he reports his first encounter with death. The patient was a middle-aged man who died of a massive heart attack while the young Dr Nuland was examining him. Nuland goes to great lengths to convince the reader and himself that it wasn’t his fault. He does this, not by grieving at human mortality, but by transferring the blame to the patient. Nuland’s description of the dead man and the destructive life style that brought him to his early death, borders on hatred. Nuland describes the man’s “flabbiness,” his “gluttony,” his laziness at taking a sedentary desk job, and compares this “high pressure boss of large, tough men” to his own 22 year old “boyishness.” Though he admits that these were not known risk factors at the time, these are disdainful words that imply a sinful life. The man was ultimately responsible for his own demise, not because he is mortal, just as Dr Nuland is, but because he lived in wrongness.

Arthur Frank sees illness as a chance to witness the mortality which we all share. Instead of  recognizing, and perhaps mourning, their common humanity, Dr Nuland distances himself by describing the man’s shameful life-style. One can assume that Nuland himself does not do all those naughty things, and can therefor believe he himself is safe from such a death. He spends the rest of the chapter, and indeed the book, describing in detail the ways in which the body can betray its owner, always with the idea that this knowledge, applied scientifically, will prevent death. I suspect that Dr Nuland’s own death will come (came?) as quite a surprise to him.

It is far easier to blame the wrongheaded patient rather than mourn the fact of death. Indeed, we were taught in medical school that mourning is out of place. We were supposed to create an emotional distance between ourselves and our patients. This was called maintaining objectivity, and is, we understood, a necessity, if one is to be a rational scientist. As Frank has recognized in At The Will of the Body, this distancing leads to thinking of patients as merely broken engines in need of repair. The person inside is largely ignored, except as the means which medical instructions will be carried out. The person, submitting to the will of the medical system, becomes a compliant body.

So what is a doctor to do when his own body escapes control and betrays him to illness? He must resent not only the sudden possession of a now-defective body, but also struggle to find a place to shift the blame for its failure. He must either accept that, like his patients, he might be mortal, or work to forget that medicine is not infallible. At the same time, he must willingly subject himself to becoming a body in the eyes of his peers.

All of these things are in operation when I become a patient, though I have, so far, not had a fatal one. I am surprised to find myself unprotected from sickness, and feel angry because I can’t think what I might have done to deserve it. Having at times seen illness as Dr Nuland does, as a sign of weakness in others, I find it nearly impossible to forgive it in myself. At the very least, I have failed to exert proper control over my body. It doesn’t help that I know precisely what has gone wrong, what that failure might lead to, and how painful it is likely to be to attempt to correct it.

Which is why, at the six week follow-up visit after surgery to fix my broken arm–which I honestly considered skipping altogether–I was completely inappropriate. I was annoyed that I was there, reluctantly complying with an unnecessary recommendation. My fractures were healing quite well, due to hard exercise and the help of some very good physical therapists. The orthopedic surgeon seemed inordinately pleased at his success with my operation, as though he still considered my arm partly his possession.

At one point, he told me, as though imparting a special confidence to a fellow doctor, that he liked the outcome so much that he was going to use the same “surgical approach” more often. It seems that he had put the incision on my shoulder in a different spot than usual. This was because he didn’t want to bother moving my unresponsive body between the surgery on my elbow and shoulder. I managed, just barely, to avoid saying what I was thinking, which was that this seemed terribly lazy to me. He looked, briefly, a bit confused by my horrified silence. Then he relaxed. He didn’t say anything, but he might have been thinking, Oh, right! Doctors are terrible patients. There was a small, indulgent chuckle.

I guess I was supposed to display more gratefulness. Or less implied skepticism at his talents. I feel kinda bad about this, but not bad enough to come back, as he wants me to, in another six weeks, so he can further admire his handiwork.

My Photos in LGBT Art: Our Common Wealth Exhibition

Laurie says:

I’m delighted to have four of my portraits at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.  I’ll be there for the artist’s walk-through at the opening with other artists and the curator Pam Penniston to talk about them.

The exhibition is at the gallery of the Commonwealth Club in downtown San Francisco and runs through September 21st. The Commonwealth Club and its Arts Member-Led Forum hosts many notable artists in the gallery of its headquarters in downtown San Francisco.




Photos include this photo of writer and father of marvelous twins Marlo Gayle from Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes. He wrote a superb essay on masculinity for the book and has published a number of erotica stories.

The Queer Cultural Center looks at the art that comes from LGBT artists as a foundation on which to build our community – our common wealth and direction. It is often ahead of the political or social movements in sensing what things are significant – and sometimes it’s just fun. This exhibit looks at diversity in our queer community, from the artists themselves to their chosen disciplines; we are showcasing woven and embroidered fabric, photography, painting, drawing and even a small installation.


Hagiwara Hiroko

This photo is of Hiroko Hagiwara, a dean and professor at Osaka Prefecture University. She is a feminist scholar and activist who was one of my primary collaborators on my Women of Japan project.

The other two photographs are of Samuel R Delany and Tee Corinne.

The photograph of my friend Tee was taken shortly before her death in 2006. Tee was a groundbreaking Lesbian erotic artist whose works included The Cunt Coloring Book, her solarized erotic photographs of lesbians, and her remarkable final project Scars, Stoma, Ostomy Bag, Portacath: Picturing Cancer In Our Lives.

Samuel R Delany’s photograph is from Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes. From his earliest books as a science fiction writer, his work included issues of sexuality, ethnicity, race and gender, including polyamorous love. He brought queerness into the future.


Tickets (click here) are free.  (I’d told that even if just the waiting list is left you should be able to register there and be able to come to the event without problem.).

I was in the The National Queer Arts Festival exhibition in May at the SomARTS gallery, which was also curated by the Queer Cultural Center. It was was thoughtful and exciting work and the curatorial walk-through was great.  I’m anticipating that it will be equally fine for this exhibit.

Artists include Rudy Lemcke, Lenore Chinn, Bren Ahearn, Indira Allegra, Preston Gannaway, and curator Pamela Peniston in an examination of their work and a discussion of LBGT art.

The opening is Tuesday, July 29th at the Commonwealth Club Gallery (595 Market Street San Francisco).  The reception is from 5 to 6PM and the walk-through starts about 6PM. The exhibition runs til the 18th of September.

I’m excited about being there.

Aerial Photography Re-imagined

Laurie says:

I’m back from Detroit and the Sojourner Truth archive in Battle Creek.  I’ll have a lot to say about this next week.  But I want to think about it for a while.

This post is about drones used for a new kind of aerial photography.  They have a far closer range and different perspectives then a small plane.  Like any vision opportunity the importance is the quality the work.  The tech only provides the tools.


Rancho Seco, California

Rancho Seco, California


BBC:   The arrival of cheap drone technology – and small, light high-quality cameras – has given rise to a new genre of beautiful aerial photography and film-making.

A new competition, sponsored by National Geographic (and Dronestagram), has highlighted some stunning examples of drone photographs taken in the past year.


The Tamul waterfall in Mexico

The Tamul waterfall in Mexico


The winner of the competition was a stunning view of an eagle soaring high above a national park in Indonesia.


Eagle in Bali Barat National Park, Indonesia

Eagle in Bali Barat National Park, Indonesia


I really like the three photos above, but I’m not knocked out by that many of the photographs I saw.  But the potential is fabulous.

The Unexpected Body

Debbie says:

When two different regular readers refer us to the same link (and a third to the source material), they’re probably on to something. It’s exciting enough that Prince Fielder (is that the best name ever for a baseball player?) was the cover model for ESPN Magazine’s “The Body” issue.

Fielder posed naked, in his tattooed glory, in a pose designed to showcase, rather than downplay, his pot belly. The issue features many other interesting (including some nonstandard) sports bodies.

Better still is Leigh Cowart’s analysis at The Concourse. First of all, she gave me the term “The Unexpected Body,” which I feel like I should have heard before, but is new to me. Cowart says,

The unexpected body is one that looks out of place in a sport, the grown-up version of the kid who always heard they had ‘a good heart, but the body’s just not there.’ They defy society’s narrow expectations; they make everyone eat their words. …

People expect certain kinds of bodies from certain kinds of athletes, with each little pocket of competition tending toward a preferred morphotype. Opposite Balanchine’s ideal ballerinas, with their small heads and sloped shoulders and long feet tacked onto their whisper-light frames, football likes men who are broad and tall and thickly draped in muscle, the largeness of the frame superseded only by the voracious nature of the appetite required to maintain—never mind bulk-up—such a massive organism. Basketball, on the other hand, has a known affinity for an ultra-tall, ultra-lean body. …

But baseball is somewhat more relaxed in the body department, thanks in part to the diversity of positions. There are durable, muscular catchers; shortstops with those fast-twitch, spring-loaded legs; third baseman who are sturdily built yet lean enough to snap and twist at the waist. Who would look at Babe Ruth, Ichiro Suzuki, Greg Maddux, Barry Bonds, Yu Darvish, and Yasiel Puig, and assume they were all professional athletes at the highest level of the same sport?

As a small-time, not especially knowledgeable, baseball fan, I find this fascinating. I have seen vast differences in height, leg length, stockiness, etc. on the baseball field, in a very different way than one sees it in soccer or basketball, and never given it a second thought.

Cowart goes on to talk about Fielder:

There’s an audacity to Fielder’s athleticism. That he could be so unusually large for the game and yet still play it well, combined with the fact that he appears to give not a single fuck about the former, make him an easy favorite. He’s an 162-day-a-year reminder that cultural body norms are almost always short-sighted and lacking, at the very least. With his exceptional mass, his sloppy but enthusiastic running, his swing that spans wide and arching, and his frantic mid-run dives, Prince Fielder embodies so much of what’s great about the game. He’s our ultimate fat baseball player.

I’ll stop quoting now, but the third part of Cowart’s article talks about the social media reaction to the picture. Unsurprisingly (if you’re a body-image activist), at least some people in social media lost their shit when they saw Fielder’s belly. Despite the man’s remarkable track record, many people can’t see him as an athlete and see his pot belly at the same time. One of my “favorite” tweets is:

How am I going to explain Prince Fielder’s Body Issue cover to my children

— Matt Collins (@RedSox_Thoughts) July 8, 2014

Well, Mr. Collins, I would suggest, “Doesn’t he look wonderful?” Someone at the link suggested, “Children this is what confidence and normalcy look like. May you always feel comfortable in the skin you’re in,” which works for me too.

The unexpected body, it seems, is not just unexpected but incomprehensible. As a nation, we are so convinced that fat is antithetical to athleticism and good shape that we don’t even know what to do with the combination when it is shown in unmistakable glory.

Kudos to ESPN for using Fielder’s photo. I just hope every fat kid who wants to be a baseball player sees this picture (and doesn’t have a father who can’t figure out what to tell their kid about an athlete’s pot belly).

Also thanks to Lizzie Fox and Lynn Kendall for the pointer to Cowart, and Steven Schwartz for the pointer to the ESPN issue.

At the Will of the Body, Part 3a: Doctors as Patients

Lisa Freitag says:

Dr. Lisa Freitag is a former pediatrician in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She wrote some guest posts for us in 2013, and we are delighted to have more of her insightful presence here. This is the first half of the third (and last) part; Part 2 and a link to Part 1 are here. We’ll finish Part 3 in the next couple of weeks, between posts from Laurie and Debbie.

People have said, “Doctors make terrible patients,” to me, usually with a little indulgent laugh, as a sort of joke meant to partly excuse a demonstration of un-patiently behavior on my part. Maybe doctors as a group are bad at receiving care; I certainly am. I am a terrible patient.

I curse, I scowl, I second-guess science, and I resolutely refuse to be cheerful in the face of adversity. I resent the whole package of being ill; the discomfort, the weakness, the interruption of better plans, and especially the reduction in status from person to patient. Waiting in a room full of other supplicants for access to the purveyor of all that is holy, creates in me a gnawing and impotent anger. The knowledge that, at a different time, I held this power over others, and believed it to be benign does not improve this anger. While I was working as a doctor, I felt rather put upon, because there was only one of me, and all those people were out there in my waiting room, waiting for beneficence.

Although I suspect that I am not the only doctor who harbors a creeping uncertainty about the truths of the religion that is medicine, very few have ever admitted it to me. I have witnessed very few of my fellows during illness, so I cannot vouch for their terribleness as patients. I cannot assume that my reasons for being a doctor who is a bad patient are typical, nor can I support the hypothesis that doctors universally suck at patienthood. But some of the things I was taught over the years, do seem to indicate that doctors would, in fact, be unlikely to adapt well to the role.

One of the first things we learned in medical school is that doctors do not get sick. Of course, doctors get the flu, or feel crappy, but there are no offers of sympathy, no postponements of work to be done, no allowance for time off. Any display of weakness, or need for allowances is considered inappropriate. Your personal life must not interfere with the important work of medicine.

When I was in my third year of medical school, one of the interns, two or three years ahead of me in training, got stomach flu while on call. After a few hours of vomiting and diarrhea, he thought he might be getting dehydrated. So he started an IV on himself and continued working. Somewhat later, a mother, not recognizing him as a doctor with his scrubs and IV pole, complained that a “patient” was examining her child. The intern was reprimanded for his error, but he was not sent home to recover in peace. He merely heparin-locked the IV while seeing patients, so that it would not be visible.

This was not an isolated incident. Doctors never call in sick. If you get two hours of sleep the night before, or have a low-grade fever, or feel like you might be coming down with something, you go to work. One of my partners worked until noon the day he had surgery on his back, because his procedure wasn’t scheduled until 1:30 PM. The same guy never forgave me for my son’s premature birth, not because I had stupidly failed to recognize signs of early labor and continued working, but because my sudden absence really messed up the schedule.

Thus doctors spend all day examining the bodies of sick people, while not tolerating any sickness in themselves or their peers. The combination of ignoring one’s own body while spending every waking hour attending to the needs of others’ broken bodies, cannot be healthy. This dissonance between realities breeds, I think, a general disrespect for the body and its functions, and a specific suspicion of the person who is ill. Being sick becomes an inability to control the body, a sort of failure of character.

The main thing one learns in medical school is medicine. Tons upon tons of science, all directed at the battle against disease. To keep being a doctor, one must be convinced of having a chance of actually winning. So we forget what that we know all bodies must eventually break down, and concentrate on bolstering the body’s defenses. Many patients these days are offered only optimism, encouraged to hope for a cure, even if one is unlikely. At the same time, doctors often know from experience what the worst looks like. In a serious illness, a doctor must walk a tightrope between hope and despair, remembering past triumphs and failures in similar situations. Suppression of this knowledge can become a necessary component of maintaining the proper optimism.

The refusal to display or acknowledge illness reinforces the popular image that being a doctor confers an immunity to the things that plague the rest of the world. There is some implication that doctors deserve this reward. Doctors themselves seem to accept, if not expect, the benefits of their superiority, from waived parking tickets to large incomes. Apparent immunity to illness is another perk, explained away scientifically by the assumption that doctors supposedly enjoy the very best insurance and preventive medical care. Thus, we can bury quite deeply both the knowledge that we might become seriously ill and the fact that death is inevitable. When another doctor needs medical care, everyone involved is reminded that it is a fiction, and the illusion fails. Neither doctor nor doctor-turned-patient appreciate the reminder.


Julian Dimock: Photographs Of African-Americans – South Carolina 1905

Laurie says:

This extraordinary collection of Dimock’s work has recently been put on line by The Museum of Natural History. Given the obvious quality of the work on line, I’m hoping sometime to have a chance to see the originals. I am initially struck by the brilliant and respectful photographs he took of African Americans in South Carolina at the turn of the century. I am going to take the time to explore all his work in the collection. In this post I am more focused on the portraits, but I expect that if I could see the originals I would be just as focused on the images of people at work or in their surroundings.

I see work with the eye of, among other things, a portrait photographer whose photography involved working collaboratively and respectfully with the people I photograph, to give some sense of who they are. When I see work that honors the humanity of the people in the photographs I respond.

Dimock SC Woman

Woman with arm akimbo, Beaufort, South Carolina, 1904

From the Museum website:

The images in the Julian Dimock Collection consist of approximately 3400 photographs on glass taken by Julian A. Dimock (1873-1945) in the United States in the early part of the 20th century from about 1904 to 1911. Dimock, who donated the negatives to the Museum in 1920, traveled the Southern states over many years, both alone and with his father, and scientists and guides, such as anthropologist Alanson Skinner, and during Museum funded trips to Southern locations like The Everglades. Carrying heavy and cumbersome photographic equipment over challenging terrain, Dimock trained his lens on the people and landscape of the South. He widely published images and articles in travel journals and guides such as Outing Magazine, and in books he published with his father, Anthony Weston Dimock, such as Florida Enchantments (1908).

Dimock’s work in the South documents African American communities, both former slaves and descendants of slaves, including many moving portraits of individuals and groups working and living in South Carolina and Alabama.

Dimock SC House Servant

House servant, South Carolina, 1905

He also took hundreds of photographs of the Seminole Indians of Florida and preserved their glorious traditional dress and customs on film. Dimock is likewise well known for his images of Ellis Island and the poignant circumstances of immigrants of Manhattan’s Lower East Side at the turn of the last century. All of the photographs capture cultures and customs with an exceptional compassion and with the beauty and sensitivity Julian Dimock is known for.

Dimock SC fishermen

Fisherman and boy shoveling oysters, Hilton Head, South Carolina, 1904

The quotes below are from ChickenBones: A Journal for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes as part of a review of Dimock’s book of these images.

A poignant collection of 155 photographs, Camera Man’s Journey takes us to a place at once familiar and foreign. Set in the South early in the twentieth century, these photographs bridge a distance not only of time but also of contrasting attitudes and customs.

The images show African Americans in or around Columbia, Beaufort, and Hilton Head, South Carolina. Some photographs were taken in surroundings where blacks might associate with whites–out of necessity and according to strict custom.

Most of the images, however, are set in “colored sections” or other remote areas of town or country where blacks were obliged to fashion lives apart. Under segregation and disenfranchisement, men, women, and children are portrayed in ordinary occupations and pursuits: a peddler selling his wares, a woman tying a toddler’s shoes, a barber and his young apprentice taking a break outside their shop.

Julian Dimock, whose works appeared often in major travel and nature magazines, took the photographs in 1904-5. So many photographers of the era tended to romanticize or politicize their African-American subjects; Dimock was different. Signs of want and inequity are plain to see in these images, but Dimock portrays his subjects as they really were in all of their dignity, strength, and beauty. — Georgia Book News

Dimock SC Matt Jones

Matt Jones, Hilton Head, South Carolina, 1904

When you have time, take the time to explore his archive. You will be well rewarded.

Body Impolitic is powered by WordPress

with FeedBurner

Laurie Toby Edison by Carol Squires

Blog Stats

There are currently 1,216 posts and 3,853 comments, contained within categories.