Wolfman Books is excited to preview below an excerpt from our forthcoming memoir, Blackfishing the IUD (October 2019), by Caren Beilin. Blackfishing is a rhapsodic and polemic interrogation of reproductive health and the IUD, gendered illness, medical gaslighting, and activism in the chronic illness community. As author Amy Berkowitz puts it, “Blackfishing the IUD takes on a crucial topic heretofore only broached in online forums — the serious, ongoing health problems associated with the copper IUD — and explodes her investigation into a creative work like no other.”
Blackfishing the IUD will be released in conjunction with a miniseries podcast of the same name featuring conversations with authors, activists and patients deeply affected by the IUD. The book is available to pre-order at 20% off from now until the end August. You can learn more about the book and project here.
This week SeaWorld announced that it will phase out the orca shows at its San Diego theme park within two years and attempt to rebrand as an animal conservation rather than an entertainment company. It’s a move that comes in response to mounting protests against the holding of orca, and to efforts by California lawmakers to ban breeding in captivity.
More importantly for SeaWorld’s bottom line, it follows a significant drop in visitor numbers and a major hit to their net profits; SeaWorld’s shares have dropped by half since 2013. Incredibly, the downturn in this American institution’s fortunes can almost entirely be ascribed to one film: Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish.
– Helen O’Hara, 2017
I arranged my library by gender. I did not think of Walter Benjamin, a critical theorist who famously unpacked his library — “it is not certainly an elegiac mood but, rather, one of anticipation” — in 1931. He had separated from his wife and was moving into his own place. But he would have to leave (this time leaving Germany) in 1933. The same year that Freud, in Vienna, presented a lecture on femininity during which he famously said “It is you yourselves” — women — “that are the problem,” the year Nazis took over. I was moving into a new apartment in 2017. It was in Philadelphia, eight squat, interesting and brick blocks from the store, where I worked. It begins like a romantic comedy, a woman is unpacking her little library, in an apartment with plants — philodendron, croton — but one whose first scene is packing the promise of genocide and the futility of women seeking insight, or help, from the professions.
Before this moment I had arranged my shelves by height and sometimes even by color, but not gender. I had graduated. I had a PhD and worked in a store. A woman came in once, and she said, “This store is like an education.”
In my apartment I knew, from my PhD, that this wasn’t the right moment to revel in any binaries. It would be quaint, and wrong, to discipline books by a painful and fabricated construction. It would be theoretically gauche to grab books by their little fabric crotches. But I was in the privacy of my own rented home. I would never do this at the store, the bookstore, where I arranged books all the time. I unpacked a moving library each day. At home, I separated out women from men as what often happens before a great violence occurs, and I really got into it, giving my women a shelf all their own, stretching out every Brontë, one, two, three, and Kang Young-sook and I Love Dick, Corregidora, Bechdel’s complete Dykes to Watch Out For. Below were men who were amazing — Brautigan, Angel Dominguez and Rilke — the kind who have honorary vaginas for boutonnieres, but I liked to lower them right down.
Benjamin’s body, his small body, was in the way of his bigger work, and so it’s only kitsch to speak of his death. He died of suicide, at the border trying for Spain. The Nazis, not the women, were coming. He worked tactfully around evil, until it wasn’t really possible anymore. His suicide was a practical calculation about Satan’s work—like the lesser known painter, Anita Rée, who was continually harassed by anti-Semitic forces and killed herself on the island of Sylt, in 1933.
Is it kitsch to speak of myself? My little body with its big disease, in the first year (2017) of a diagnosis? There are bigger fish. “Nazi” was born as a derogatory term, meaning bumpkin, for the bumpkins who voted that way. For the countryside so swollen with bumpkins, these Nazis. In the 1920’s, when my disease was well underfoot as a term, and still no cure.
When Benjamin unpacks his library, before his death, he does not speak ever of the meat that moves a human verb like unpack, auspacken. He does not say that he stooped, knelt, or carried. He does not grip tape and rip it from a gap. His shoulders and fingers are not in the essay. He melts into the books. They auspacken themselves. He disappears. He’s not a Jewish figurine, in a fine new house, separated from his wife. You can’t see him, or his house or any wife anymore. He only watches at a twilight of bookspines — a twatching, I would think — by himself, the body only clutching itself, a forgettable gray moth on the ceiling above him, a nothing. It’s nothing yet, this body. He has no kitsch, no self. What is suicide? Is it saying, There I am? Is it the death of a moth?
Is it a severance from all of your books, but death is an unbearable sentence! Everyone says that no one dies. I mean that they tell me I won’t die from this disease, though it made me hurt so badly to arrange my own books, on my day off, when I ripped women apart from men, in my shoulders and wrists.
Benjamin does not speak of meat, he writes, “To a book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves.”
How will this do? I want to blackfish the IUD (the copper intra-uterine device, used for birth control), that gave me this disease. I want everyone to see something. The documentary Blackfish, made in 2013, made it impossible for SeaWorld to exist, because you couldn’t see it right anymore. Instead you saw its whale, Tinnicum, with his truly sad bent fin. Who had been in captivity for too long. The documentary trafficked in haecceity (Latin, for thisness), and once you know what a whale is, when you hear them calling out, you cannot go back to your enclosure. A documentary like that cuts a taut, stressed chord in the eyeball. Once it’s snapped, you see the whales and what they are. Whales want seas, and what is copper? Should it be inserted inside of a woman? It obviously caused my disease, and I’m going to tell you how.
Unpacking Benjamin is not my point then. This elegy for Benjamin so strewn with displaced aggression, says Freud, should at last move on to what I’m really doing. I aim to go blackfishing.
But Benjamin writes, “On the other hand, one of the finest memories of a collector is the moment when he rescued a book to which he might never have given a thought, much less a wishful look, because he found it lonely and abandoned on the market place and bought it to give it its freedom — the way the prince bought a beautiful slave girl in The Arabian Nights.”
Being owned (once again) is the prerequisite for her freedom. A collector, even of books, is still only collecting more women. Are they—are we—the substance of any collection at all? Are we interspersed through anything called object or owned? Is Benjamin (this unspeaker of meat) opening her and putting her away and wiping the dust off her breasts and lips? He pulls her down. He thumbs through her, the tree-origin of her numerous skin. He holds her. He puts her back, he unpacks his library. He has saved her from slavery, but what is slavery in this context of book collecting, of saving books? From what? Does he save his books from worse collectors, from less sensitive men? Does he save his books from a bad basement storage situation, or from a Nazi burning? Does he elevate his books as he unpacks? Does he ever elevate women? Does he save them from the water, or from water damage, like SeaWorld saving Tinnicum from the damage of the seas?
He actually admits he doesn’t even read them!: “And the non-reading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all.”
I have thought that to collect, to purchase, is to own, but that to read is to save, if it is to preserve the tremoring, the forevering gerund, of what was said, and said, a gelatinous threading, saved in the seas of present consciousness. To reanimate a once-wrist (of a writer who had a wrist), with succulent eyeful listening, to allow the wrist a little home in your roaring, connected brain, when you are alone in your library, house or home.
A customer at the store confesses, as she buys a new stack of books, “I don’t know when I’ll get to these, I have so many stacks.” She means: I don’t know when these slaves will be saved.
Can they hold out? Can they hold their breath? Can the dead hold on? Have you read The Peregrine?
Let’s leave for England, like Freud escaping in 1938 to London. Sick, he was dead in 1939. He was regretful to leave Vienna, where in 1933 he met with the poet Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), who really pitied him. She was from here, a Moravian from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her book about her treatment, Tribute to Freud, is more for Pennsylvania’s hills, for its — her father an astronomer — stars, “My findings are important to me and have an atmosphere.” But she relied on Freud, to help her with her problems, while she really pitied him for his. Pity is control, all women should pity men if we feel ourselves gasping, plunging and dying. I feel I must pity the basketmen, as I call them, who sit or stand on the street watching me pass. They collect, with their eyes, my passage, the way I hold myself quite deflective. I do not see any women staring out at the street collecting whomever passes, I see them instead staring into their hands, talking on the phone, handling things. I see them lost in the absorbent sky or in the touching time with a friend. I don’t see them wiling, collecting, being baskets for female fears. Men are basketmen too often, I see it. I try to look indifferent, on my way to work, irreverent, absent as I walk but parts of me strain through the straw. My trembling gelatin stays a gloss on basketmen. They seem like they are passing some time, on a break from their work, whatever, but they are not. They are collecting, with their eyes, control.
They don’t need to hunt, point or shoot, or say anything, but to look, to draw out an ocular net as far as this length of my street, it’s quite enough. To watch is powerful enough, which isn’t to read which is to save. To watch is to say, “I could do more” — is to spread horrific mercy into the atmosphere.
J. A. Baker, who wrote The Peregrine, is a famous birdwatcher. He wrote his famous birdwatching book in 1967 from the flat fenlands of eastern England, mostly a diary of his days watching birds, suffering badly from this same disease.
“John Alec Baker (1926-1987) was born and lived in Essex, England. He left school at the age of sixteen and worked at the Automobile Association and later for the soft drink company Britvic. He was forty-one when he published his first book, The Peregrine, the culmination of what he described as a ten-year fascination with hawks. Baker’s worsening rheumatoid arthritis curtailed his explorations into the wilderness, and his second book was his last.”
Curtailed his explorations into the wilderness, I gave up on that book in terror.
I have RA (endued to me by a copper implant in my uterus) but Baker’s RA was given by something else, obviously, and had only begun to etymologize in the mid 19th century (rheuma meaning the flow of waters) and it was not distinguished as a disorder until 1941 (arthron meaning joint) though Renoir had it (dead in 1919, and itis means inflammation) and this famous painter of “rolling, doughy estrogen bombs animating the glowing surface of their pulsating electric Eden” (wrote the painter Carroll Dunham) had to have his bedsheets tented above his body because of the painful penetration of his sheets, because even a soft object was a stabbing incident, and things were untouchable, unlovable.
Baker wrote The Peregrine, and one other book, and died in 1987. Mallarme (dead in 1898) had it too, and H.D., who did not have it, said, “I was rather annoyed with the Professor in one of his volumes. He said (as I remember) that women did not creatively amount to anything,” and she reported waking with a heartache, or it could have been actual physical pain, which frightened her a lot more. She could not tell which.
H.D., you would know if it was not heartache, I would say. A disease says, “I am not your heart,” unless it is heart disease. It says, “I am not you, or any kind of your sadness. I am process and I’m beginning.” I am wind caught up in you with no way out now — a motile pattern. Triangular and fanged. There is no point, it says, in unpacking your dreams.
Did they give Baker Sulfasalazine, designed in 1938, the first drug specific to RA? It’s hard to know what he took. And when did he know what he had?
Robert MacFarlane, in his introduction to The Peregrine, writes that Baker knew. He had, when writing his book, already been diagnosed with it. He was out there wondering the fields of Essex, the estuaries, “in the huge scooped-out emptiness of mud and mist,” with knowledge. Like Benjamin, trying to disappear into such a twatchfulness, “For inside him there are spirits, or at least little genii, which have seen to it that for a collector—and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be — ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting,” but could Baker disappear in the birds, their bodies, with his own in such pain? Baker didn’t want to own anything, but both men tried and dared to become inhuman, to leave his human form, hands and bones, through the zephryous escape hatch of the iris, rods and cones. A woman can’t get anywhere (immaterially) so watch her twitching.