Barking Cheerleaders, Wandering Wombs

While he was speaking, a woman from the crowd called out and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that carried you and blessed are the breasts at which you nursed.” He replied, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.” (Luke 11:27-28)

Wombs. They’re all over the news cycle lately. What’s in them or not in them, and how to keep it that way. To whom they belong. Whither they’ve gone a-wandering. Uteri and the women who tote them around have not been this much a focus of national and ecclesial attention, it seems to me, since my sister and brother eighth graders at Immaculate Heart of Mary Grammar School received what passed as sex education in early 1960s Catholicism: poor embarrassed Father Hernandez sternly cautioning us not to even think about what’s Down There.

With the number of reproductive issues making headlines in just the few weeks since the Roe v Wade anniversary and March for Life–the HHS mandate requiring coverage of free contraceptive services as preventive health care, the Susan G Komen Foundation’s defunding-refunding-of-Planned-Parenthood whiplash, the decision of student health services at Pennsylvania’s Shippensburg University to make the morning-after pill available in vending machines (Shippensburg? vending machines? I can’t believe this isn’t The Onion), and today a blossoming social media campaign (euphemistically titled Stop the War on Women) against Ohio’s proposed Heartbeat Bill, which would prohibit abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detectable–it’s hard to escape the uterine politics. Even before all these stories heated up, though, I’ve had a young woman, upon finding out over beers with the Shakespeare group I volunteer for that I was Catholic, recoil in horror and yell, “You can’t have my womb!” It took a couple more beers to convince her I truly didn’t want it, and neither did the Pope.

On top of the political womb wars, there are the barking cheerleaders. I’ve been following with fascination this story as it unfolds on the TODAY Show–a group of young women from a high school in upstate New York, most of them popular, pretty, and active in the arts and sports, exhibiting the onset of sudden, uncontrollable, persistent Tourette’s-like twitches and verbal tics. The outbreak began with one cheerleader–“I used to cheer every day,” she said mournfully in an interview, “but I can’t do that anymore”–and spread quickly and mysteriously. Environmental toxins have mostly been ruled out (though the real, non-Julia Roberts Erin Brockovich is leading a team looking into a twenty-year-old train derailment), and the girls and their parents vehemently reject both stress and faking as explanations. Dr Laszlo Mechtler, the neurologist working with most of those afflicted, identifies it as conversion disorder–otherwise known as mass psychogenic disease, or mass hysteria. “It’s a disorder that occurs in small groups, especially girls in schools in small towns,” Dr Mechtler told TODAY. “In the last 100 years, most of the cases have occurred in factories, in schools, or in nunneries.” Nunneries?

A cluster of afflicted girls. The teens of that small town called Salem, pinched and slapped by invisible forces. Mass fainting on the factory assembly line. Repressed virgins walled up in convents, meowing like cats. That’s hysteria for you. And relabel it as you will, DSM, I’m convinced we’ve never lost the belief of Galen and the other Greco-Roman physicians that hysteria is exactly what its name means in Greek: a wandering womb, an untethered lady part gone rogue. Galen’s contemporary, Aretaeus of Cappadocia, described the womb as

. . . very much like an independent animal within the body, for it moves around and is quite erratic. It likes fragrant smells and moves toward them, but it dislikes foul odors and moves away from them.

This movement of that independent animal up and away from the “foul odors” Down There (think that concept is archaic? count the ads for “feminine freshness” products that fill the airwaves of daytime TV) presses on the internal organs, according to Aretaeus, interfering with breathing and causing swooning, coughing, and strangled sounds. The ancient prescription was, much like today’s ads, to apply fragrant smells Down There to coax the wandering womb back into place.

The Victorian notion of hysteria was an unseemly sexual itch, encouraging licentious behavior. Cures ranged from clitorectomy to the use of vibrating devices to reduce the tension. Freud, whose first couch occupants were hysterics, identified the source of the problem as sexual repression (hence the frequency of hysteria among Puritans and nuns) and decided something a little more phallic than fragrant was what needed to be applied to put the uterus in its place.

I can tell you, from first-hand experience, that they were all wrong. I haven’t had a uterus in six years, since it wandered off hand-in-hand with the Big C, and everyone I know can testify that this has not stopped me from becoming hysterical at the slightest provocation. And those barking cheerleaders in NY? It’s hard to imagine that they–or any 17-year-olds in this society, no matter how small the town–are suffering from a repressive sexual climate. The opposite, maybe: it has to be insanely stressful to be a teenage girl right now.

What I think is that wombs and the women around them are, and always have been, damned scary. Even to ourselves, a lot of the time. Reproductive capability (as the Institute of Medicine calls it, in defining it as one of the risk factors for the “disease” of pregnancy–the other risk factor being being female) is a whacking great mystery, no matter how much we think we learn about biology or think we can control with chemistry. It can all go so wrong. One minute the woman you are or the woman you love is the Great Mother, nurturing and compassionate; the next minute she, you, is (like the name of one of my favorite beers) a Raging Bitch. A barking cheerleader. Shakespeare’s Lear, perhaps echoing the Bard’s own conflicted relationship with the feminine, speaks some of the most terrifying words ever written about my sex:

Down from the waist they are centaurs,
Though women all above.
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
The rest is all the fiend’s; there’s hell, there’s darkness,
There is the sulphurous pit–burning, scalding, stench, consumption . . .
(King Lear, IV:6)

Put next to that, in relief, the words of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, with which I began this reflection. The fruit of the world’s most blessed womb refuses to separate people into parts. He argues for a notion of blessed humanity that transcends gender–not in some false unisex erasing of differences, but in the beatific vision that sees a broken world’s fearful dichotomies restored to redeemed wholeness. Listening to, truly hearing the Word of God in its fullness, observing it in faithfulness, stills the clamor. The wandering wombs, weary of politics, come home to rest. The tics and barks subside, and we can cheer again.

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