On living in—and losing—a body
In Italian, the verb “to skin” is spellare. The way I understand it, this is a verb distinct from the Italian for to peel, or to strip, or to shuck. It’s the word you’d use for preparing an animal, for flaying a corpse. Informally, you can also use a version of it when you mean I skinned my knee or even I shed my skin. Either way, it’s a word that connotes a body revealed and ready for refashioning. I learn all this one afternoon in Bologna at the threshold of the Anatomical Theater of the Archiginnasio, a friend translating the librarian’s rapid Italian as quickly as she can manage. We’re at the first site of the University of Bologna’s medical school, and this room—built in 1637—is where the earliest human anatomy courses were taught, where men did some of the first sanctioned dissections of human bodies in the West. Surgery, as we understand it today, was essentially born here, and now the librarian is gesturing up on the wall above the marble operating table, where two lacquered wooden statues gaze down. I look closer and realize they’re all carved visible muscle and bone. He calls them Spellati: the skinless ones.
This trip is a colossal, improbable gift. My first collection of poems has just been released and, as part of its publication, I’m here in Italy to spend six weeks at an artist’s residency at a castle in Umbria. I’m twenty-five and about three weeks out of graduate school. The notion that I have any kind of a writing career still feels a little like a joke, and when you combine it with words like castle and Europe and funded fellowship I have the distinct sensation I am watching a movie of someone else’s life. I can’t stop fingering the passport in my purse; I need a constant, tangible reminder that this is really happening.
But over the past year or so, as my book has come into being and my professional life has come to resemble more and more the one I’ve been dreaming of since I was a child, my body has been undergoing its own kind of transformation. The symptoms of my cerebral palsy are worsening. Recently, the low consistent ache in my knees has been increasing in intensity and my back has begun to spasm whenever I stand up. Hard enough to knock me over if I’m not careful. The two kinds of changes form a mystifying syncopated rhythm: I have a piece of artistic good luck and, as if in concert, I get a little less mobile, am in a little more pain. I use my wheelchair more and more, even for very short distances.
In the two weeks before I leave for Italy, I push myself too hard while preparing to travel. I take a nasty fall and wrench something I can feel but not name. All of a sudden it hurts when I’m sitting at my desk, when I roll over in bed, when I bend to tie my shoes. I’m panicked and enraged at the timing. I drag myself to the doctor and ask for a cortisone shot and a prescription for a heavy-duty muscle relaxer I can take on the ten-hour plane ride from Mississippi to Italy. The doctor at the campus health center wants to request my medical records, wants to do an X-ray and figure out what’s really going on. I don’t have time, I tell him, I have things to do. He shakes his head but gives me the shot and the prescription.
I want to tell him, Listen, I’m breaking every rule I’ve ever had for how I treat my body. I’m suspicious of quick fixes, steroids, narcotics, anything that masks the real weather of the body with false and dangerous calm. I want to say, I swear I’ve been tender; I’ve been tough when I needed to be; I’ve let my body call the shots so it would last. Just this once I need to force it to fall in line. I want to make him understand: I love my body but I can’t let it take this opportunity from me.
Instead, I say thank you, and leave his office gingerly.
Here in Bologna, I’m visiting an old friend for a few days before my residency starts, and we’ve come into the anatomical theater through a circuitous back entrance in a connected building, one that involves an elevator so narrow I can barely fit my wheelchair inside it, as well as several locked doors, through which the librarian leads us apologetically. My friend translates his steady stream of I’m sorrys and explanations: This is a very old, historic building; they had to get so many special permits even to put an elevator in the one next door; this city is terrible for people in wheelchairs; if he had known I didn’t walk…I’ve discovered by now that I can get almost nowhere in this city through the front door and that there are many places I can’t access at all. I’ve also fallen in love with the light, and the occasional hidden channels of water tucked behind wrought-iron gates, all the rose-colored stone, and the throng of the main piazza. The past feels shoulder to shoulder with the present here. I want to witness everything, and I’m having trouble knowing what to do with the way the magic of the place is tangled up in my inability to access it. Or with how my sense of my unbelievable luck is butting heads with my mounting anxiety about my mobility, my mounting frustration about my pain. The dissonance makes me fragile and defensive:
My life is extraordinary. How dare I feel sadder than I do grateful?
There’s so much in the world I want to see and do, and already so much of it is unreachable to me.
The last time I had a sudden, inexplicable increase in pain it marked the first time I needed a wheelchair, the last time I walked more than a city block. I never got that early body back.
This is the beginning of the life I’ve always wanted.
What if I’m about to lose another body?
Next to the spellati there are carved statues of famous physicians (Hippocrates, Galen) flanked by renderings of Apollo, several Catholic saints, and constellations named for figures from mythology. Humanity, science, and all these conceptions of divinity conjured up together for some sort of communion in the service of understanding how it is we’re made, and what to do with that.
My own body feels skinless, rubbed raw. I imagine it butterflied on the marble table: brain and heart, liver and lungs, muscles and tendons all laid bare, all my brain’s bad wiring in evidence, thickets of scar tissue every place a surgeon has reshaped me over the years.
Does it matter if I tell you that the anatomical theater itself is essentially a reconstruction? The original chamber was mostly destroyed in an air raid during World War One. After the bombs they pulled the old statues from the rubble and rebuilt the place from the ground up. They tried to use as much of the original material as possible, to make it match, as closely as they could, a sturdier version of the very place it had been before. You can’t see the seams where they affixed the spellati and the saints to the new walls.
Does it matter that dissection was once considered too invasive and violent a study to subject most bodies to? Originally, they used the corpses of criminals and prostitutes as instructive cadavers, and then buried them in unmarked graves without bothering to stitch them back together again. While doctors gave instructions to medical students, they left the actual cutting to butchers.
I owe the current shape of my body, almost every inch of mobility I’ve ever had, to scores of people taken apart without their consent, people no one cared enough to name or suture into any kind of remade whole once they had taken what they could.
The book that won me this fellowship to Italy is about a real, government-run residential hospital for people with serious mental and physical disabilities that was the epicenter of the American eugenics movement in the first half of the twentieth century. More than eight thousand people were sterilized there without their knowledge: One colossal misunderstanding about the brain and the body piled on top of another; doctors with just enough knowledge about how we’re made to do cataclysmic, permanent violence, spurred by terror. Cut a body just like that to ensure that it will never make another one. Stitch like that to sew it back together.
Does it matter that the midday light in this operating theater washes the whole place the color of dark, sweet cherries? On top of their sinewy bodies, the skinless men have the fine-boned faces of angels.
How about this? In a handful of months, my health insurance will lapse. And at home in the United States, the government is doing its level best to make me uninsurable. I have needed fixing from the moment I was born. I can feel myself falling apart. Does it matter that I am afraid?
In Bologna, I take the muscle relaxer every night, a heavy-duty anti-inflammatory every morning. I do everything I can to keep my body quiet, tell it, Hush; please behave; we’re so lucky to be here. One day, I climb five tall flights of stairs, leaning heavily on a railing, because I have to reach the top of a nearby city. Everybody says it’s an unmissable view, so I have to see it now in case I never can again. In case it’s my last chance to ever climb this high. It’s extraordinary, all those terra-cotta roofs spilling beautifully down the green mountain. The walls of fortresses and spires of churches punctuating an otherwise empty sky.
I can’t do it justice; you’d have to see it for yourself.
That night, I don’t really sleep. My hips and knees ache so intensely I can almost hear it. I lie still on the mattress because any real motion produces a spasm. You can only ask your body to lie to itself for so long.
And so, once I get to Umbria and my residency begins in earnest, I taper off the medication, don’t get up out of the wheelchair except to walk a couple of steps to the dinner table, or climb gingerly into a golf cart, or a car. OK, I tell my body, you can get loud again. I’ll listen. I’ll be gentle. There’s so much I can’t see of the castle’s beautiful grounds, so many places I can’t go at all. Not even once in my life.
But out the window of my bedroom here some foreign flower is blooming a gorgeous yellow in the courtyard below, and in the morning there are piles and piles of apricots, bright and sweet in a white china bowl. There’s a tiny, retrofitted elevator in the center of the castle, and the door of the turret is just wide enough for me to ease my wheelchair through to see the sun set, a huge red fist above the horizon. As long as I’m gentle, the pain mostly eases to a constant tenderness. I can’t believe my own luck.
I don’t know exactly what’s happening in my body, and I fear soon someone will need to take it apart again and stitch it back together. So I’m trying to listen as I shift inside myself, and watch the world from every angle I can see without standing. Preparing, quietly, to transform again.
You can use the verb spellare when you mean I shed my skin.
Molly McCully Brown is the author of the poetry collection The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded and the essay collection Places I’ve Taken my Body (forthcoming in 2020). She teaches at Kenyon College.
Image: Detail from Lesley Dill, Poem Body, 1991.