Blackfishing the IUD, by Caren Beilin is a striking memoir of experience. Beilin consistently trends toward auto-fiction, and like her previous novels, Spain and The University of Pennsylvania, Blackfishing is whip smart, snarky, and contemplative.
Blackfishing is also harrowing. It describes the emergence of Beilin’s rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis and it’s connection to the copper IUD. The purpose of the project is to in fact question the safety of copper IUDs. Beilin has a mature voice, incorporating anecdotes alongside literary reflections. She writes, “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 metal in our womb? The body inflames.”
This work captures the way writing is embodied. In this narrative, the body of a piece of writing is related to the mind is related to the body of a person. This work describes pain. It captures the experience of people in pain. And it captures the sadness of that pain not being recognized. There are swerves into historical literary antecedents for rheumatoid arthritis (Baker, Renoir), but the primary thrust of the work comes from contemporary accounts, including Beilin’s own, of having violent immune reactions, and subsequent illness following the application of copper IUDs. It’s a familiar story. Being gaslit. Being a body and a mind that isn’t trusted. Being a body that doesn’t trust itself. But she refuses to accept the pain. She strives for better care and strives to occupy her body more fully.
It was me who was crying, walking home, because he’d said, ‘I need to hear your whole story. I don’t trust doctors, inherently, so I need to hear it, at length, from you.’ And still I didn’t tell him, about the IUD at least. But I cried on my way home, gingerly across the bridge and in the blatant October lighting, to be asked.
There are accounts from message boards, and social media accounts interspersed with Beilin’s wry humor and terror. The resulting collage of voices reaches a pitched message: listen to us.
The promise of effective family planning has always been chimerical in the United States because reproductive rights are essential to making all people free, even as the tools are imperfect. Both things are necessarily true. And the history of reproductive rights in the United States is fraught with baggage. Angela Davis explores some of the tragic legacy of sterilization in Women, Race, and Class, only too contemporary in relevance. And the messiness of the history is part of the story and the paradox. Because gaining reproductive rights ranks besides the franchise as a necessary essential achievement in establishing women’s bodies as part of the body politic, even as these things have never been simply expressed. So Beilin turns her attention to the very real experience of reactions against copper IUDs – in the face of all of this impossible history.
It’s a striking book, owning a story of violence and pain, and demanding better.