Why I write about illness and gender

We are proud to announce Uprooted‘s 2015 prize-winning submission! Amy Berkowitz’s personal essay “Tender Points” was selected by Uprooted guest judge and Stanford professor Valerie Miner from over 150 submissions.

“‘Tender Points’ is a brave, candid exploration of the author’s illness and the trauma that caused it.  I appreciated the beauty and clarity of the language.  The analysis is probing and insightful.  While the writer is unflinching in her descriptions, she never indulges in self pity or singularity. This is a moving, provocative, useful essay.”
-Valerie Miner

We are grateful to Amy for sharing her work and this insightful blog post about her writing process.


Book Cover

By Amy Berkowitz

I wrote Tender Points to tell the story of my body, a story that’s at once strange and singular but at the same time somewhat universal. It’s a story about how the body can tell a story: In my case, my body developed “unexplained” widespread pain following a sexual assault. The pain was eventually diagnosed as fibromyalgia, an illness that many doctors regard with suspicion

Tender Points, then, is also a story about what it’s like to have hysteria in the 21st century. Just as 19th century doctors used the hysteria diagnosis to control female patients who they were unable to cure, contemporary doctors’ insistence on the mysterious nature of fibromyalgia traps female patients in a state of uncertainty where it’s difficult to assert ourselves or be taken seriously when we do.

At the 2013 Vital Forms symposium in Berkeley, poet Melissa Buzzeo asked why “people who are sick are also looked at as waste products in society. Why people, especially women, especially sick women, do not want to draw too much attention to themselves.”

In a culture that privileges being male and attaches a misplaced virtue to being healthy and able-bodied, what does it mean for a chronically ill woman to talk about herself?

To me, it means revolution—that is, speaking our experience is a political act.

There is a strong tradition of silence around the experience of being female and the experience of being sick, and this silence is a site of crisis. This silence, whether we like it or not, is complicity. Is tacit consent to continue living in a culture where women’s speech is generally doubted, where sick women are not trusted as authorities on their own bodies, and where gendered illnesses are still dismissed as hysterical.

video stillIt’s necessary to break this silence: Speaking up is what lifts us out of this abject position. And so Tender Points feels urgent to me because it’s my first contribution to this conversation.

It feels important to address one final reason I wrote Tender Points: because I could. As I’ve discussed, writing about the female experience of illness takes courage, but it also takes energy. And energy is a resource that many people living with chronic illness have in limited amounts. When pain is constant, when pain makes it difficult to focus, when pain in your hands and wrists makes it impossible to type, telling your story is especially hard. I feel lucky that I currently have enough energy to take on projects like this, and access to the ability to type, which makes the process simpler. What I’m trying to suggest is that I suspect there are a lot of stories of women living with illness that we aren’t going to hear, simply because being sick can make it really hard to make your art, play your songs, write your lyric essays, etc.

Of course, I can’t speak for anyone else, only myself. And Tender Points is what I have to say. What I’m excited about now is listening to other people who are alienated by the patriarchy of western medicine talk about their experiences of illness. I’ve been especially inspired by Anne Boyer’s poems, Carolyn Lazard’s video work, and Xandir O’Cando’s games. I’m grateful to be part of this conversation. I’m grateful that it’s happening. Let’s keep talking, okay?

Amy Berkowitz

Amy Berkowitz

Amy Berkowitz is the author of Tender Points, forthcoming from Oakland small press Timeless, Infinite Light in June. You can preorder it here. Her writing has appeared in 580 Split, Dusie, and Where Eagles Dare, and on the VIDA blog. In 2014, she was a writer in residence at Alley Cat Bookstore & Gallery. She lives in a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco, which serves as the headquarters of her small press, Mondo Bummer Books, as well as the venue for the Amy’s Kitchen Organics reading series.
Amy Berkowitz

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