A science writer’s account of her frustrating experiences with the medical establishment as she tried to understand an illness that defied easy explanation and diagnosis.
Futurism associate science editor Norman is nothing if not a survivor. She overcame dysfunctional family circumstances to become an emancipated minor at age 16 and attend Sarah Lawrence College on a prestigious scholarship two years later. However, one day during her freshman year, she was hit with pain so debilitating that she was forced to leave school permanently. The first (male) doctor she saw assumed she was just another “bright and wound tight” college girl whose problem “was of a sexual nature.” He dismissed her with prescriptions for antibiotics and advice to drink lots of cranberry juice. Soon after, Norman began in-depth research—which she presents throughout the book—on female health issues. She discovered that her struggles to be taken seriously for extreme pain were actually a legacy of “the medicalization of female internal sensations, which began as early as the 1800s.” Feeling powerless to question the all-male medical establishment, women “[began] to question their reality,” much as the author started to do in the face of doctors that implied her problems, which included heavy, fatiguing menstrual cycles and, later, painful sex, were imagined. Eventually—and thanks to Norman’s tireless self-advocacy—doctors correctly diagnosed her with endometriosis, a condition in which “displaced uterine tissue” caused painful lesions on other internal organs. Interviews with experts and continued self-education on the topic showed Norman that, contrary to popular conception, endometriosis was not just a “female disease” or a “period problem” and had also been found in men. Compelling and impressively researched, Norman’s narrative not only offers an unsparing look at the historically and culturally fraught relationship between women and their doctors. It also reveals how, in the quest for answers and good health, women must still fight a patriarchal medical establishment to be heard.
Disturbing but important reading.