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The Necessity of Navel-Gazing

by Lisa Gill

[Note: A concluding list, “The ABCs of Navel-Gazing,” is footnoted throughout the essay.]

On January 6, 2009, I woke up with half a belly button.a That little scar from cutting the umbilical cord, a scar I usually don’t heed or notice or invoke, that cute little wrinkled indentation, was split right down the center on the vertical axis. The right half had sensation; the left half did not.

That I had lost feeling in part of my body wasn’t a surprise – it has happened before. And if the readers of this essay represent a statistical microcosm of the general population, I can anticipate that at least one reader per every 1,250 shares a certain unfortunate empathy: in other words, multiple sclerosis (MS). Lesions form in the brain (and/or spinal cord) as T-cells attack the myelin that insulates nerve cells. All this hubbub disrupts the usual signals produced by axons and dendrites: the outgoing signals that travel from the brain to the body to tell our muscles to expand or contract and allow us to move around the world, and the incoming signals that perceive touch and temperature and simultaneously relay that information back to the brain. So the belly button nerve center in my brain has broken down. b

When personal essays and memoir degenerate into self-absorption, “navel-gazing” is the term critics often level. I’ve even used the term disparagingly. Now, however, when I look at my navel, although visibly the same as ever, I identify that little indentation as an externalization of brain function – or rather brain dysfunction.c What’s significant about dysfunction is that it can illuminate the function we all usually take for granted. Scientists never underestimate the potential learning opportunity that is inherent in abnormality; medical breakthroughs often begin with careful examination of the break. Writers who engage in navel-gazing with the same scientific spirit of risk-taking and inquiry may also glean discoveries of merit.

The current manifestation of my relapsing-remitting disease, although neatly symbolized by my navel, actually spans from my left foot to high on my left back, depleting or distorting perception from my toes to upper ribcage. My spine demarcates sensation: I feel stimuli on one side of the vertebrae and not on the other. The front of my torso is split by an invisible centerline. The symmetry of the human body makes this division seem vaguely natural: Why shouldn’t the left side perceive differently than the right side, when there are two separate hemispheres of the brain controlling awareness? What seems bizarre – or miraculous – is how, under normal circumstances, the right and left brain coordinate in a way that makes sensation seamless.d

Before the inflammation began to go into remission, I also perceived the left side of my body as colder than the right. At first I didn’t know if this was subjective experience or objective reality, so I invited a friend to feel both sides of my torso. He indulged me and agreed that, “Yes, one side is cooler than the other.” I took my investigation a step further. I purchased one of those flat forehead thermometer strips and compared my thighs; my left thigh was two degrees colder than my right, according to the color bars. I had proof, an almost incontrovertible proof of deviation from purportedly universal human experience.e

If my body deviates from the norm, then I want my experience to matter in literature. In life, sometimes the challenge is to accept – and tolerate – a lack of sense. In writing, one challenge is to find – or make – sense. I also desire to form a legitimate connection with other people.f And yet, although my neurologist strikes my body with little rubber hammers and pokes me with pins, she refuses my request to rest her fingertips on my legs to discern the differing topical temperatures. Intellectually, I understand that contemporary neurologists don’t have to palpate anything, thanks to the advance of brain scans and the demise of phrenology’s skull-lump-diagnosis, but her response still seemed odd; I felt stigmatized.g

Doctors, at least in theory, have educations that might aid interaction and understanding. If a doctor wouldn’t touch my body, would an editor or reader pick up a literary rendering of it? In medicine the negative impact of stigma on health is well documented. Conditions that elicit stigma are typically incurable (like MS) or contagious (like HIV) or involve bodily defilement (like trauma); what’s implicit is the loss of control. The temptation can be to shun and blame people with such conditions rather than face the uncomfortable, shared vulnerability of being human and having a physical body. Writers aren’t immune to this persuasion and can be susceptible to both applying and receiving stigma.

At least my neurologist believed my story about my body’s topical temperature disparities. (My credibility as an MS patient had been established six years earlier, after an MRI and spinal tap led to a diagnosis.)h She explained that while an increase in temperature might signal a blood clot, a decrease was merely another “special” symptom of brain lesions and was not a cause for worry.

What does worry me is how creative nonfiction writers, readers, and publishers respond to stigma. Some editors, proponents, and critics of memoir inadvertently (or flagrantly) devalue stigmatized populations by refusing to consider works on certain topics such as rape or sexual abuse; or by condemning unsightly revelation, both emotional and physical; or by simply forcing the work out of mainstream markets into specialized arenas such as feminist or disability journals. In my readings and experience as a student, it’s not unusual to find critique of bad memoir muddied with implied critique of difficult and even taboo subjects, as if the content of the life were the issue, as if an experience can be too marginal.

I firmly believe that those of us who have experienced disability or trauma, dysfunction or simple oddities, possess knowledge that, no matter how particular to the individual, speaks to the larger human condition.i  Whether or not we’ve figured out how to articulate that knowledge is a different matter. Meanwhile, the necessary and even crucial prerogative of the ever-burgeoning genre of creative nonfiction is to address all the nuances of the human condition, including the navels.j

The ABCs of Navel-Gazing

a. Open with an absurd or humorous image to hook reader and set tone.
b. Incorporate research and provide necessary explanations.
c. Self-implicate and document change.
d. Reflect.
e. Investigate.
f. Express desire.
g. Interact with an authority in the field and speculate.
h. Establish credibility.
i. Share common and potentially “universal” experiences.
j. State personal concerns directly.

For further reading:

In the Shadow of Memory – Floyd Skloot
A Three Dog Life– Abigail Thomas
Meditations from a Movable Chair – Andre Dubus
LuckyAlice Sebold
Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio Gary Presley

Lisa Gill is the recipient of an NEA Fellowship and the author of three books of poetry. In June 2010, 516 ARTS will premiere Gill’s new play, The Relenting, a collaboration with Travis J. Farnsworth that presents a mythical retelling of an encounter Gill had with a rattlesnake in the living room of her home near Moriarty, New Mexico.