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
black • fish
verb. 1. destroy a cultural notion of normalcy around something, as the 2013 documentary Blackfish did for whales in captivity.
“God forbid RA,” said the first rheumatologist I saw. Men on the street have given me more thorough eyefuls than this one. He would not look at me. I took off my shoes to show him the hard swelling under each foot, which had set fire to my morning floor, but he would not look. I sat there, my hands pathetically full of socks, but he only turned his back and looked at lists. My inconclusive bloodwork, what Renoir would criticize to his son, Jean, the famous filmmaker, “Does blood analysis help me to give with my brushes an idea of the blood circulating?”
I had asked this rheumatologist to observe a new bump that had formed, seemingly from calcium, on my finger joint, but he said, “Why don’t you just send me a picture of it?”
He said, “Right now I can’t say what it is, so we’ll have to run more tests. God forbid it’s RA though.”
Because I was young, 33. Because RA is the worst. A life of pain, disfiguration, serious drugs, and cost. Pictures on the internet, knuckles swollen into big balls, fingers beaked, everyone unable to work. They spend their paintime online. A common expression of painfulness on an online thread: “I would not wish this on my worst enemy.” Worse than death? A life against God’s edicts—really bad.
I was, with RA, entering such a Satanic order according to this doctor—“God forbid RA”—and I felt, rapidly, against him. I saw him one more time and then stopped going in the middle of the testing. There was one more conclusive test. I wouldn’t see him again. I wouldn’t get that test. I wouldn’t let him be the one to tell me that I was a witch.
Witches were poor village healers. In medieval Europe they collectively invented empirical medicine—the kind where you look. You must touch and sense, compare cases and see what happens and remember what has helped. The body’s effects, how it looks and feels, before and after interventions, matters, and not these dogmatic ideas of a religious order that was inventing at that time a profession made only for men, which had quarantined empiricism in the devil’s pen as Augustine, in 400, warned, “This evil, which is of the devil, creeps in by all the sensual approaches.” People were listening to Augustine still, and still were in 1882 when the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche still had to warn everyone about Augustine, a monster of morality who truly feared the spirit and made his revenge against it—Augustine was Nietzsche’s worst enemy. Augustine (and Plato) were, if women only had “a female’s lust for revenge and a female’s sensuality.”
“Female,” the disqualificant.
Witches would listen to you. Their career began, it was said, by sexual intercourse with the devil. She twitched in the fire pits across the land. “In the Bishopric of Trier, in 1585, two villages were left with only one female inhabitant each,” wrote Barbara Ehrenreich and Dierdre English in 1973—the year of Roe V. Wade, the Arab-Israeli War, the Endangered Species Act. Ehrenreich and English mailed out their self-published pamphlets in boxes, from their houses. They used diaper boxes (from raising kids) to mail it from their houses, as the theorist Helene Cixous noted in 1976, “It is well known that the number of [published] women writers (while having increased very slightly from the nineteenth century on) has always been ridiculously small.”
These medieval witches knew, I read, that inflammation is the root cause of many diseases, so how is it that we have forgotten not to inflame our own uterus with a foreign object? If the theorists Deleuze and Guattari said in 1980 that “Metal is the conductor of all matter. And thought is born more from metal than from stone,” why do we put copper in our womb? The body inflames, it starts to overprotect you. It starts to try to hold you. What diseases could this holding, this puffing cradlemaking, set in motion? What diseases are of inflammation? What diseases are three times more common in women? How I woke with it, the systemic pain, shortly after the IUD was inserted—and how I read now, anything, out of only desperation, going to literature and philosophy to understand what’s happening because medicine is destitute of connections, because the professions really are, in their roots, born from the oppression and sanction, enslavement and murder of women—“It were a thousand times better for the land if all Witches, but especially the blessing Witch, might suffer death,” said a medieval hunter about poor, successful healers.
Literature, the good literature that lasts, is preserved in outlier amber, outside of institutions—if you want to be cosmic, the first thing is to walk out of the building— though Nietzsche will warn you about me, “The perfect woman indulges in literature just as she indulges in a small sin: as an experiment, in passing, looking around to see if anybody notices it—and to make sure that somebody does.” You’ve been warned—and if one woman alone were to notice, after reading me, that since she’s had her copper IUD inserted in her uterus she has experienced depression, anxiety, heart palpitations, or joint pain, then writing’s writing. Literature is better than men.
But I have to be more explicit.
It was Sylvia Townsend Warner, in 1926, the year after Mrs. Dalloway, who wrote Lolly Willowes or The Loving Huntsman. It was about a woman who needed to walk out of the building. Her oppressive family life. She gets away from them, actually, but it’s not enough, so she becomes a witch. She speaks with Satan who unlike Augustine’s lord doesn’t care about what she does. A confession would bore him. But she schools him, “I can’t take warlocks so seriously, not as a class. It is we witches who count. We have more need of you,” and I literature.
I should be explicit about what happened. In November 2014, a Studies of the Etiology of RA report appeared and it made a connection: “IUDs have been shown to generate endometrial inflammatory responses. Therefore, the association of IUD use and ACPA [autoantibodies indicative of RA] suggest that IUD-induced endometrial inflammation may be a potential mucosal trigger of RA-related Abs [abnormal labs].” This was the test I would not get. I could not get this test, could not have this, at 33. I didn’t test my ACPA, trying diets and wearing padded shoes, some with such comedically ballooned medical space in the toes. I had given up on icing anything—it was not injury—but still I soaked in Epsom salt baths, trying to lure the metal, a copper toxicity, from my tissues where I dreamed it had burrowed, my liver somehow so helpless, so unhelpful. I woke in screaming pain, indicative of disease, not heartache, and of the Swedish poet Aase Berg’s warning, in 2015, “The choking spirit / of the current systems / It is not called atmosphere, / it’s called utmost fear.” My heart was so lonely without the happiness of my body at this time.
I had the IUD for six November days of 2015. But at the bookstore, in 2017, still in pain and doctorless out of my scorn, and terror, poverty and being busy, I couldn’t bend my fingers. They throbbed in such pain. I couldn’t bend them. I carried stacks of books with my forearms. No one seemed to notice. Nobody really examines your body. I thought someone would, when my middle and pointer finger were each swollen to twice their size, but no one said anything. It wasn’t uncaring. It was poverty and busyness and bliss. No one is looking for pain.
I ordered the test. I waited two weeks. In 2014, the research—led by a medical student, Sonia Khatter—described RA as quite likely to develop at “mucosal sites.” What is a uterus if it’s not mucosal? What is the uterus if it’s not mauve and wet, the most mucosal?
“Too much development of the brain, they counseled, would atrophy the uterus,” wrote Ehrenreich and English about American doctors of the 19th century.
The uterus inflamed by the IUD, Khatter’s study suggests, will harken autoantibodies specific to RA three times more often in women who have this disease already in their family, though it is not in mine. My father with his depression that only gestured as bitter rage. My mother with her MS, what she always said to us, an assurance as she lay there exhausted, “I’m not in pain, it’s never pain.”
In two weeks, I went to my primary care physician who I had requested this most specific test from and he told me, with a laugh, that I had RA, sure. Look, I was quite a high positive. Quite definitive. He shook his laughing head. He went out of the room to print an order, he wanted me in for a cat-scan, for potential cancer in my neck. Two lumps. When he came back in the room he said, “Don’t be upset, I doubt it’s anything.”
“There is a female freedom,” writes Aase Berg in that same 2015 poem, and it does not include being owned by men, collected, analyzed, unpacked by men.
When I had it removed—the copper object, cross, the device—the gynecologist, who did not want to do it—who had at first refused to do this—removed it almost easily and she showed it to me and said, “Look. What a waste.”
How do I save her from that enclosure?
J. A. Baker [author of The Peregrine who, too, had RA] did not know how to save the peregrines, in 1967. He watched them helplessly, their extinction active, already. They flew and hunted, dead. He knew it and warned, “Few peregrines are left, there will be fewer, they may not survive. Many die on their backs, clutching insanely at the sky in their last convulsions, withered and burnt away by the filthy, insidious pollen of farm chemicals,” but he was wrong. The peregrines recovered, and returned. They fly and hunt still and in greater profusion now. Things turned around. But he did not know that they would, and when he died, in 1987 there was still little hope if you had RA. You would still die on a field of crumbled bones.
Methotrexate was approved by the FDA in 1988. It became the gold standard of treatment for RA, everywhere, by the 1990’s. Dr. Rex Hoffmeister of Spokane, in 1972, had presented his abstract—the drug seemed to provide major to moderate improvements in disease activity—to great hostility at the National American Rheumatism meeting. Nobody wanted a cancer drug to treat the immune system. They didn’t want to cross cures. Maybe cancer is for everyone but impaired immunity is for faggots (Ryan White passed away in 1990). The manufacturer, Lederle Laboratories, wasn’t interested because MTX wasn’t patented. They could not own it, couldn’t collect. It was so cheap. How was Sonia Khatter (now Dr. Khatter) treated at the 2014 American College of Rheumatology Annual Meeting in Boston, I wonder, when she was a student linking the IUD to the beginning of autoimmunity? What did her teachers or other doctors say? Did they come up to her after? Did anyone say anything? (It was, after all, the healing witch they were after. It was the blessing witch, or the healing one, who should be twitched.) Did Teva Pharmaceuticals, an Israeli company and our sole producer of copper IUDs in this country, get the memo about this young student’s work? Did they call or email Khatter or her mentors? When my gynecologist looked at the object she pulled from my uterus and said, “What a waste,” she was referring to its cost. She meant, with utmost fear, that she practices her profession, gutted.
Blackfishing the IUD (October 2019), forthcoming from Wolfman Books, 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.
Caren Beilin is the author of the autofiction, SPAIN (Rescue Press, 2018), the novel, The University of Pennsylvania (Noemi Press, 2014) and a collection of short fictions, Americans, Guests, or Us (New Michigan Press, 2012). Her work appears in Fence, The Offing, and Territory. She teaches at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in the Berkshires.