“For Gleeson, the specter of serious illness is part of everyday life, something to be overcome”
Without her complicated bones, Sinead Gleeson writes in the opening essay of her new book, Constellations, she would be someone else entirely. Her collection of 14 pieces is informed by a life filled with innumerable hospital visits, in which many of its milestones – childhood, puberty, marriage, parenthood – have been inextricably linked with severe physical pain and suffering. Having been diagnosed with arthritis as a teenager and leukemia as an adult, Gleeson has often experienced Ireland from crutches or a hospital bed, giving her a unique perspective on the trajectory of society, politics and culture during her lifetime.
Much of Constellations was written over the various background noises of her life – the ominous soundtrack of hospitals and clinics, the echoes of her children playing in her home – challenging the notion that writers need undistracted time to produce work. She pays tribute to other artists who have inspired her, like painter Frida Kahlo, poet Lucy Grealy and photographer Jo Spence, through their work concerning their experiences of suffering, of their failing bodies. In ‘12 Stories of Bodily Autonomy’, she movingly discusses how all Irish women’s experiences have been politicized by the Eighth Amendment, hoping the future will be different for her daughter.
Passages describing her time in the undemocratic ‘kingdom of the sick’ (echoing Susan Sontag) make for distressing reading. A scene in which a nurse advises her to take a drug that will allow her to breastfeed post-pregnancy (despite the fact that it poses a one percent chance of it inducing miscarriage) in ‘The Moons of Motherhood’, or coughing up a raspberry-looking part of her lung while suffering from cancer in ‘60,000 Miles of Blood’, are particularly harrowing. “A life with pain is a distracted one, where every thought is always second to the source where it hurts. Pain is a reminder of existence, bordering on the Cartesian. Sentino ergo sum: I feel, therefore I am,” she says, in ‘A Wound Gives off Its Own Light’.
For Gleeson, the specter of serious illness is part of everyday life, something to be overcome. “While working on this piece, a medical issue arose. Another one? I think, never surprised by the ease and regularity with which a body can falter,” she says in ‘Panopticon: Hospital Visions’, which discusses her experiences as a hospital patient. Details of the indignity of being prodded by overworked, clinically-detached medical professionals can make one wince. She learns their lingo in the hope of being believed when telling them about the pain she’s feeling: “My assimilation of medical language – of inverting the act of questioning – has always been an attempt to assert autonomy; to hold on to a small part of my medical story.”
What is striking throughout Constellations is the strength of Gleeson’s voice, as well as the exuberance of prose which articulates experiences that cannot have been anything other than traumatic and miserable. If, as she suggests, illness is an island in which only the sick experience suffering, the act of reading her dispatches from it will undoubtably render you more empathetic.
Words: Paulie Doyle