In the 1940s, in their quest to devise an objective pain scale, Cornell University researchers poked an increasingly hot metal rod into the hands of 13 women in the throes of childbirth. The volunteers were supposed to express how each level of heat compared with the others. But as labor progressed and the rod got hotter, they were in too much distress (and quite possibly distracted with other kinds of pain) to grapple with adjectives. Throbbing? Searing? A 7 on a scale of 10?
And therein lies the conundrum. Few of us can express our aches and hurts accurately, particularly when we are in the thick of them.
This quirky bit of medical history opens Abby Norman’s vivid memoir, “Ask Me About My Uterus.” But the focus of the book is really in the subtitle: “A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain.” She builds a convincing case that women describing discomfort are more likely than men to be dismissed by physicians, but along the way tells a story that will resonate with anyone (man or woman) who has ever experienced pain.
Norman suffers from endometriosis — a chronic and debilitating illness triggered by uterine-like cells growing outside of the womb. Women with the disorder have heavy, agonizing periods along with a litany of other symptoms depending on where the rogue cells lurk. If they congregate near the bladder, urinating hurts; near the sciatic nerve, pain can shoot down the legs; inside the lung (a rare event), breathing can be stifled.
After one bout — “as sudden as a thunderclap. A stabbing pain in my middle” — Norman eventually got to an emergency room, where she was handed the typical 1-10 pain scorecard. She was still aching, but not in the original horrors of it all. So she didn’t know how to assign a number to it: “Bad enough that I couldn’t ignore it, which made it definitely higher than a four or five.” She questioned whether she was a six or higher and whether the doctor would believe her anyhow.
Norman repeatedly told doctors that sexual intercourse ached “like a dull pinch, that resonated to my pelvis.” No one paid attention until her boyfriend accompanied her and mentioned his frustration. “Becoming a disappointment to a man,” she writes, “seemed to do the trick.”
Norman is a terrific storyteller with a gift for weaving memorable anecdotes, some drawn from medical history, others from recent scientific debates and most plucked from her own travails.
Norman’s life is much more than a disease. She emancipated herself from her family at the age of 16 and sought solace in books, particularly scientific literature, to understand her symptoms. Many doctors chalked up her distress to physical expressions of a psychic trauma.
“Ask Me About My Uterus” is an important addition to a long tradition of pain memoirs. Norman shares a particular tale of suffering but expresses a common frustration about the dearth of words to convey pain. Any schoolgirl can talk about love, Virginia Woolf famously said, but “let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.”