Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Research and lacemaking: filling in the historical gaps

This month I am starting to collect historical stories about breast cancer surgery from women of all ages. I am building upon the clues and fragments I've found in archives. I once heard the biographer Claire Tomalin describe this process as "lacemaking". I find I must weave a story around the inevitable gaps. Privacy laws, for good reason, forbid looking at more recent patient records, so I continue to search for alternative ways to bring women's voices alive from the 1930's onwards. My book is taking idiosyncratic shape as I piece together two hundred-year old experiences from hospital records with richly-told and generously shared stories by women I've met through wildly differing means, from support groups to arts events or simply sheer chance. 

In a couple of weeks I am interviewing some Cornish breast cancer survivors and Mermaid patients who have had preventive surgery due to their family history. Meanwhile I have been thinking about how to turn records back into real people, such as 31 year-old Lydia Dettmer ("married, and of a confident habit") who in 1811 was admitted to a London hospital for surgery on a breast tumour "the size of a filbert" — think hazelnut. And next to me is an email from a friend, telling me about her seamstress grandmother who made her own prosthesis with fabric and wool stuffing in post-war upstate New York. While I enjoy the random nature of these stories, working them into a coherent narrative and integrating them into my own story is a real challenge. Mermaids and Monsters is a history and a memoir, after all. The nitty gritty of this project, the lacemaking, is about to begin.

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