Editor’s Note: this essay originally appeared in the Spring print edition of INCIDENT Magazine, and in:Action Ireland.
By Máiréad Delaney
It is January 29th, 2015. Today marks the opening in the High Court of the case of a woman who endured a symphysiotomy. Symphysiotomy, an experimental and brutal surgical intervention practiced on Irish women, severed the joint of the pelvis, supposedly to ease the delivery of a child. It is snowing in Dublin. The court’s first session commences at 11am. This is when I begin as well, on Holles Street. I came to the National Maternity Hospital to act in solidarity with a group of women who have been denied justice by their state, and whose bodies were altered for pro-life, nationalist purposes. They have since been denied access to restitution. The redress scheme presented to these women by the Department of Health requires them to indemnify and ‘hold harmless’ all bodies and people in respect to the carrying out of symphysiotomy, in direct contradiction to the recommendations for independent inquiry and prosecution of perpetrators laid out by the UN Human Rights Committee.
I hold an object that alters my body’s movements in a way that echoes the harm done to survivors but does not replicate it. This harm is held, suspended, endured, witnessed.
My gait is wide, rolling around the crown of thorns stuck between my legs. The thorns have found purchase in my skin, each is snug and I feel more than anything else the cold– my body quakes with it. Tremors run along my arms and through my chest. There is a rushing wind and the noise of traffic is swallowed or magnified in that rush. My skin is a bluish white, my garments old cream silk. As undergarments they hold no appeal but modesty and fine fabric. The snow is grey. Layers of small socks have widened my feet, they sidle with every step. The little sacs of warming chemicals I placed under my arches have burst. Swollen cloth. With every step I see my distended feet, and the wet snowy cobbles, and the detritus of the street. I stop and crouch. Squatting, I hold tighter the tunnel between my legs, all it seems to be when I look down. A tunnel of thorns, a dangerous and jarring passage. I feel only heat and the lack of heat. My shivering stops after an hour. I look down at the cobbles and up at the sun, for the sun. My legs go numb, most numb around the thorns they grip. I cannot tell if I will drop them and so bear down, holding tighter. This will make them harder to extract. I grip the iron bars of the hospital’s railings. One bar, a few steps, the next, another step, I pull myself along.
On February 27th, the second case is running in the High Court. This time my presence mirrors the second session of the court’s day, I begin at 2pm. I hang a large, industrial sink from on neck from heavy wire, like a yoke. I wear the same clothes. The sink is broken, the wire is wrapped around each tap. The two halves of the sink are unevenly sized, one much smaller than the other. They pull me off-balance. I have to pull the wire on the left down intermittently, to bring the smaller half back in line with my hips. It travels up. The porcelain is written with the testimony of the survivor whose case is running now, who will lose her case on May 1st. The larger half of the sink reads, “I thought both sides of my body were on the floor.” The smaller simply states “They broke the bone.” The inked words run down the broken bowl, on either side. With this object, too, I walk back and forth in front of the hospital. It is warmer today, the cobbles are dry, cool and dirty. The wire is cutting heavy on the nape of my neck. Part-way down the street I start to bend, I ever-so-slowly lower the sink to the ground and let the wire rise an inch from my neck, for a moment. The split porcelain basin makes a hollow, not-bell noise on the stones. Then I bear it up again and rise. I walk under its weight, I bend and lay it down, I duck underneath it and carry it again. I walk. Dusk falls, the air turns blue.
Many survivors were forced to walk immediately after their symphysiotomies, and sent home without post-operative care, including antibiotics and pain management. The damage inflicted by these surgeries was catastrophic and lifelong, as might be expected at the destruction of the seat of the spine, the cradle of the digestive and reproductive organs; one of the most integral structural components of the body. The emotional, psychic and social toll is less measurable yet no less devastating.
The first survivor of symphysiotomy I met in Dublin was a tiny woman in her late eighties, she still had red hair. She put lipstick on for her portrait. She made scissoring motions with her hands down her body, describing how they had to cut her clothes from her body as she hemorrhaged uncontrollably from the procedure. She had picked the hospital because it was Catholic. She pushed back her sleeves to show me the series of dark marks up and down the insides of her forearms, scars from the many transfusions she’d required. This woman was in a coma for three weeks. She remembers coming in and out of consciousness. The first time she was on a table, with a crowd of students and a doctor at the end of the bed. Another doctor stood at her shoulder, teaching. The second time she remembers waking again in what she thought was a black tent. She asked the nurse if she had caught something contagious and was being quarantined. Finally she remembers waking up on a black slab. She later found out she had been put in a body bag and taken to the morgue. It seems her botched operation needed to be hidden from sight. She remembered asking “Have I any stitches?”and being informed she had twenty eight. Eighteen inside, ten outside.
She described her year afterwards, how every night she’d have flashbacks, nightmares. “During the night I’d scream and go mad.” She returned home to her parents house. The only thing that would alleviate her nightmares was sleeping in her parent’s bed, with pillows packed around her, partly to soothe her terror and partly to relieve the pain in her pelvis and spine. She spoke quietly, with downcast eyes, softly twisting her hands in her lap. “That was my first birth,” she said. “Caesarean wasn’t accepted by these bloody men.”
Symphysiotomy was a pro-life operation. C-section was standard in Western medical care at the time; symphysiotomy was practiced through the 1990’s. Cesareans were seen by prominent Irish physicians as unnatural, and akin to ‘amoral’ birth control, as they possibly limited the number of future births. Symphysiotomy was viewed as natural because it remained vaginal. And as it ‘widened’ the pelvis to prepare a woman for future prolific childbearing, it also ensured a laboring mother experienced the pains of childbirth, in accordance with her Catholic duty. I have witnessed survivors describe the agony of delivering a child through broken bones. The pelvis was not merely widened. It was unhinged.
The on-paper history of this surgery remains unwritten. Medical records claimed by the state are now in danger of being destroyed. By refusing to admit to widespread medical negligence in the most recent ruling, the Irish state refused to acknowledge the memory and testimony of survivors. Erasing them as subjects, the state persists in dehumanizing these women decades after the initial intervention. When individual voices are silenced in this way, we are left with lived violence. This violence resonates on a collective level. The nature of my ‘Hold Harmless’ works are affective, visceral.
I relay the story of a survivor as I witnessed it. (The woman I describe speaking has since passed away.) I write from a sensory perspective because it is the position I held. Both stories engage with strain, burden, resilience and pain. We cannot conflate two, but we cannot overlook the place of compassion and connectivity and hence responsibility in witnessing. Why do you need to know that I was cold? That the sink was heavy? Because some transmission needs to happen around these experiences. They have been marginalized. Some knowledge of embodiment needs to reach beyond the definition of victim and the dead-end-to-life it portrays. We need to see how power inscribes bodies and creates burdens, and how these new bodies feel, endure and articulate agency. The survivor I describe was a young woman, small of frame, having her first child in nation-state that considered her ripe to embark on her reproductive career. Her story is connected to others, to the stories of the other women whom I met and spoke with, and to the unique stories of over two hundred other living survivors.
Steps are taken. Altered steps, perhaps. The sun comes out, it vanishes. The wind rises. Traffic passes, people pass, taking notice, expressing concern. The Gardai come and leave again. The environment around me changes, I move while hampered. I make adjustments. I rest and begin again. Time passes, the state does its best to erase, and the burden does not ease. I hope these works will help people realize their connection to these women.