‘Bearing witness to the truth of our own lives’

Dawn Garisch - Eloquent Body

Eloquent Body by Dawn Garisch, Modjaji Books, 2012

Most of us have some form of compulsion. We live in an addictive, hyperactive, attention-deficit-disordered and entitled society. We are anxious. We want relief, and want it now, no matter whether we, or the earth, can afford it.

These words from Dawn Garisch’s latest publication, Eloquent Body, articulate the unremitting stress of our age and the terrible dilemmas we face as we seek respite. In this fascinating book the reader is led on a deeply personal and courageous journey, during the course of which the author reveals herself as a gifted artist and multi-faceted medical doctor possessing an uncommon vision. With calm, clear expression, she blends intuition, common sense, reason and experience into a timely message. It is a welcome response to our collective suffering.

Garisch has received numerous awards, grants and prizes for her writing, most recently, the inaugural Sol Plaatje E.U. Poetry Award. With six publications under her belt, including Young Adult fiction, two novels and a collection of poetry, her seventh book, Eloquent Body, is a formidable treasury of hard-earned wisdom and insight. It offers great hope:

Our bodies mostly want to get better, and work hard to do this, despite the ways we live that are contrary to this drive. Psyche also presents opportunities for us to heal from past traumas and seize our lives…

The book can be conceived of as three interwoven texts: part advice-manual to seekers of well-being and personal integration, part critique of contemporary medicine and its fractured approach to healthcare, and part first person narrative of her journey as a mother, medic, patient and poet.

These pages will inspire and encourage readers to wrestle with the work each individual must do alone if he or she is to attain wholeness and the concomitant relief. Garisch erects the signposts for those embarking on the task of listening to the deepest self. She talks about how one might reconnect with one’s own “daimon”, that guiding spiritual presence that calls one to consciousness from birth. This text is a brave and eloquent account of her quest for meaning in the face of daunting personal tribulation.

Eloquent Body represents the author’s first foray into non-fiction. It is an essential read for those who seek understanding of the compulsive malaise that is central to the human condition generally, and the artist’s reality in particular. It should be prescribed reading for all who work as healers, whether from the conventional western medical point of reference or in alternative fields. It shows a balanced way of understanding illness from the vantage of the lived experience. This wise and kindly text warrants a position on the bedside table of every patient who grasps for a deeper comprehension of that which afflicts them. It also belongs on the bookshelf of every writer.

Stories are the earliest way that humans tried to make sense of the world, who we are, why we are here, and what we are supposed to do about it.

Like Annie Dillard does in This Writing Life, the author gets naked to share her writing process. She does not hold back the confusion and doubt that beset her as she claimed the time to write. She discloses the insistent need to carry on despite the corrosive voices that undermined her impulse to create. She examines the role of the inner critic in a new and constructive way. This approach might radically transform the fretfulness some writers experience in the generation of new work.

Her broad survey explores contemporary thinking on topics as diverse as neuroplasticity, self-inflicted suffering, the ethics of medical research, the overwhelming volume of new scientific evidence funded by drug companies, and the pressures on doctors to remain informed in a rapidly changing world. A core theme is the ever-present void – that spiritual abyss where there is no meaning. She reflects on the strategies people employ in a bid to avoid this crisis of existence. Fabulous insights abound in chapters with headings like “The Psyche Doesn’t Speak English” and “Non-Medicinal Ways to Loosen Torment”. It will resonate with those who aim to find expression and authenticity in creative endeavour, and not only writers. Garisch talks to dancers, painters, potters, actors and filmmakers too.

Using case histories of her patients and her own encounter with a vicious autoimmune disease, she becomes a spokeswoman for a sane and centred approach to living with the questions, even when they appear unanswerable. She tackles her subjects in a measured yet impassioned tone, from the science and poetry of the body to an unsentimental exploration of the significance of death, too often denied by those in the wellness business.

The methods we use in attempting to achieve the god-like goal of perfection – pesticides, genetic engineering, disposables, experiments on animals, cheap energy, flying in out-of-season produce – can become the suffering and problems of others.

The scope is wide. She includes the archetype of the wounded healer, the desecration of the planet, humanity’s trade in illness, the pervasive addictions that deplete the soul and the role of fear. She explores at length the variety of ways Psyche speaks to and through artists in symbols, dreams and lifesaving metaphors. Tracking recent developments in philosophy, psychotherapy, sociology and medicine, she is unafraid to overturn any sacred cows that happen upon her path. For any who have raged at the simplistic reductionism of American wellness author, Louise Hay, Garisch’s more complex and compassionate view will be most welcome. She links and reinforces the narrative the patient brings to the page with that which the artist brings to his or her medium.

While this multi-layered book cannot be recommended highly enough, it is not always easy reading. Garisch cites the views and theories of philosophers and psychiatrists, poets and sociologists. Jung, Pinter, Chomsky and Joseph Campbell are instantly identifiable, but many lesser-known specialists in more obscure fields are not. A brief introduction to locate the context of the expert and the discipline from which he or she speaks would have provided a smoother, more incorporated read by preventing the need to flip to the endnotes.

That grumble aside, a particularly delightful touch is the inclusion of a poem, or extract, at the beginning of every chapter as a unifying device. Her choice of South African poets, including Colleen Higgs, Joan Metelerkamp, Alan Finlay, Kai Lossgott, Puleng Nkomo and Michael Cope sits well with the spirit of the book. Because of the enormous complexity and the range of topics she broaches, there is a tendency to rambling. Garisch returns to topics covered previously, layering new insights upon the earlier and reworking ideas and concepts that are, by their very nature, in flux.

Another way of thinking about Eloquent Body is as an extended meditation on the ways humans interact with their bodies and minds, families and communities, as well as the connections they make in their search for healing. In the diffuse light of a contemplative work there will, by its nature, be sections that require a suspension of analysis and a submerging of sensibility.

Although the author uses a linear narrative to trace her journey towards meaning and healing, the book is, perhaps, best approached as a collage where themes and threads wind through and around overlapping topics and images. Typically the chapters are short. Garisch has utilised a fragmentary structure, including micro-stories, dreams and case histories as sub-sections. This format invites the reader to pause and ponder. The book permits one to dip randomly into a chapter to experience the gift residing in the fragments that make up the whole.

We should all be real characters in the stories of our lives.

Garisch’s writing is most fully alive where she writes her own character. The account of discovering her inescapable and incurable illness while still a medical student is poignant. Similarly, the traumatic tale of mothering her unconscious toddler in intensive care after he’d fallen eight metres is written with a disarming candour. Later, her account of losing a patient while working insane hours as a houseman, alone on the ward in the middle of the night, offers harrowing insight into the human aspects of science.

The narrative highlight of this book is the interlude where she records her stint as a ship doctor on the S.A. Agulhas as it voyages to Antarctica. Selected from emails she wrote while on the voyage, she states that she included this section as an example of how she identified and explored images as a means of containing her distress. The dramatic shift of tone in her writing is fascinating. The author loses the professorial mien and becomes animated and intensely personal. The deep connections of her theory are manifest practically on the page as she unpacks the relationships between the crew on the deck and in the dining hall. The details of rope and seabirds, the growl of the motor, the stench of the errant plumbing and the unremitting cold are tangible and visceral. Her recollection of a dream of burning ice from earliest childhood yields a connecting image that ties into her adult journey.

At the core is the belief that healing is accessible even in the absence of a guaranteed cure. Garisch makes few promises, however. Those who quest for transformation, those who recognise the imperative of committing to the muse and enter her service will grasp a life-enhancing vitality. They may have to sacrifice the ego in order to reset the way they live their lives, but this profound and redemptive action will alter the patterns in their brain chemistry. She gives this assurance:

The most important long-term relationship we have is with ourselves, and art is a way of bearing witness to the truth of our own lives – documenting the complexity and patterns of this undertaking to live well.