Our July Book of the Month is The Case of the Missing Body by Jenny Powell, published by Otago University Press.
A detective story like no other, The Case of the Missing Body by Jenny Powell is one woman’s search for the barest physical presence of her body. This moving memoir details Powell’s experience of proprioceptive dysfunction – a condition neurologist Oliver Sacks described in his case study ‘The Disembodied Lady’.
‘This is Lily’s story,’ says Jenny Powell. ‘Her story is my story, but in order to write it I had to step back and examine it from a distance.’ Creating Lily enabled Powell to narrate her own experience.
Proprioception, sometimes referred to as the sixth sense, informs us of our body position in space. It is the sense that tells you your left hand is on the table beside you even when you cannot see it. ‘Lily’ has no sense of her body and has struggled with the effects of this throughout her life.
The Case of the Missing Body interrogates the very nature of self-perception by exploring the absence of a basic sense most of us take for granted. Powell reveals some unexpected challenges facing people with invisible conditions, particularly when those in the medical profession do not fully understand the condition. The frustrations and gradual triumphs will resonate profoundly with those who experience similarly hidden struggles.
In this beautifully written series of diary entries, ‘Lily’ becomes her own detective, searching for clues to help her find her own body. This multi-genre work seamlessly blends medical forms, emails and diagrams into the narrative to give an immersive account of her determination towards mastery. Jenny Powell records her crusade of self-discovery with indisputable courage, willpower and wry wit.
Bound in an original cover by Donna Demente, The Case of the Missing Body is a powerful expression of life.
Jenny Powell is a Dunedin creative writing teacher and poet. She has eight published volumes of poetry: Sweet Banana Wax Peppers (HeadworX, 1998), Hats (HeadworX, 2000), Double Jointed (with 10 other poets of her choice) (Inkweed, 2003), Four French Horns (HeadworX, 2004), Locating the Madonna (with Anna Jackson) (Seraph Press, 2004), Viet Nam: A poem journey (HeadworX, 2010), Ticket Home: 30 poems (Cold Hub Press, 2012) and Trouble (Cold Hub Press, 2014).
Excerpts from Jenny Powell, The Case of the Missing Body
This is a detective story. To solve the mystery of the missing body it is necessary to locate and unravel a conglomeration of clues as they emerge and retreat. Information will be sifted and sorted to frame the clues in a context.
This is the story of Lily, of Patrick the physiotherapist, and a process called proprioception … Proprioception is the unconscious sense of body position, which comes from special sensory receptors located in the joints and muscles. It is the sense that tells us where our arms and legs are, even if our eyes are closed. Body and mind interact, enabling functioning on a number of levels. But not for Lily …
Lily had experienced many [associated] challenges, but when she began to work with her physiotherapist on some shoulder-strengthening exercises in a gym, neither could have predicted what would unfold.
[As a child] Lily enrolled in Saturday morning gymnastics at the YMCA. Hordes of children in shorts and t-shirts made their way around mats, ropes, boxes and beams. Lily had already encountered some gym equipment and could hold out her arms and walk along an upside-down school bench. She had mastered a crooked version of forward and backward rolls by practising along the hall at home.
After the Saturday sessions a string of parents’ cars waited on roadsides by the YMCA. For Lily, the concentration and sheer effort of the activities took their toll. Exiting with the other potential Olympians it was not unknown for her to climb into the back of the wrong father’s car. A quick turn of the driver’s head would reveal her error. Sorry. Sorry. Lily would make a rapid departure, desperately hoping that none of the gymnasts – nor her actual father – had noticed the mistake.
She lasted two years at gymnastics. It made no obvious difference and at this point her mother gave up on fostering Lily’s physical attributes. Her attention was diverted to cultural activities.
Diary of a No Body
Gym Session with Patrick
Patrick suggested I arrive 10 minutes early to warm up on a cross-trainer. I’ve been on them before with Lucy. There’s one spare. I press start, but it doesn’t. I press start again. I try all of the buttons. Nothing happens. I’m standing on the machine like an idiot. Lucy usually keys in the settings. I’ve never done it before. I can see Lucy in the gym but she’s with someone else. I will her to lift her head and look at me. She doesn’t.
Great. I get off and try to blend into the cubby-holes for bags and jackets. If I fitted, I’d crawl into one. This will never work. I’m overwhelmed and want to leave. I can’t stay in the gym any more so I walk to reception, sit on a couch and wait for Patrick to come down the stairs.
In the gym he’s enthusiastic. ‘Have you done your warmup?’
‘No. I couldn’t get it to go.’
The words burst out, bubbling in frustration and embarrassment. I stand on the cross-trainer again. He presses go, and it does.
We get to the machines and exercises. I don’t know how to do anything. I don’t get it. I’ve never had to do these kinds of things before. Lucy and I steered clear of machines.
No matter how much I force my brain into intense concentration, nothing works. I have always survived through thinking. Now something terrible is happening. I’m frightened. Patrick breaks tasks down into smaller and smaller steps. Sometimes I can copy him, sometimes not. He moves parts of me into the right places to do things. I’m a rag doll. I don’t know where my arms and legs and shoulders are meant to be.
Why isn’t Patrick frustrated? He keeps on speaking gently. I can hear that he’s on my side. There is no rush or pressure. I listen to him, I watch him, and I try the hardest I can.
I have no visual concept of the gym. My eyes are unable to see the big picture. I don’t know where I’m going. Patrick guides me around the equipment and stops me bumping into people.
I’m sitting at a machine where you reach up and pull two handles down to your chin. I try. Patrick says he wants my shoulder blades to do the work – I think he means my shoulders at the top of my arms. He puts one finger at the base of each of my shoulder blades on my back. I pull down. My shoulder blades move. Not my shoulders but the bony things in my upper back. They are there. I can feel them. He can feel them move. I made them move! I have shoulder blades.
It’s so strange. The inside of my body did something. It’s magic. For the first time in my life I have shoulder blades. For the first time in my life I can feel this part of my body. I didn’t know people could do that. I always assumed everyone, pretty much, just felt their head and their thoughts; that they moved automatically. Like robots.
What a revelation this is. I sink back down into my body and move my shoulder blades again. It wasn’t a fluke. This is amazing. I have gone through all of my life so far without realising that you can purposefully control parts of your body by making your muscles do things. And, as if controlling your body isn’t enough, you can feel it inside your skin. You can feel parts of your body move. It’s unbelievable. Just unbelievable. Why didn’t I know this before now?