Books

Kylie Maslen
Show Me Where It Hurts

Drawing on personal experience and pop culture, Show Me Where It Hurts explores the isolation and frustration of living with chronic pain and mental illness, not to mention battling a medical system steeped in misogyny. “Pain – both physical and mental – is more than a number or shaded area on a chart,” writes Kylie Maslen. Her carefully researched essays demand the reader to see her as a whole person, one whose life is both similar to and different from theirs. She dates, enjoys swimming in the ocean, and has spent countless hours in waiting rooms, in hospital and resting at home.

Diagnosed at the age of 28 with chronic pelvic pain, polycystic ovary syndrome and endometriosis, Maslen describes the community she has found online – “pain worlds” where those with invisible illnesses share selfies and memes while “normies” and healthcare professionals are the “other”. “My pelvic nerves,” she half-jokes, “are like Yosemite Sam from Looney Tunes – small but weaponised, often ill-informed, constantly muttering and plotting, quick to anger.” Her tone is matter of fact and weary. In the opening essay, she memorably lists what people and doctors ask, what she wants to say and what she actually says. This delicate negotiation of how much to reveal, when and to whom resurfaces throughout the collection.

With her background as a cultural critic, Maslen makes deft leaps from SpongeBob SquarePants to Leslie Jamison’s memoir The Recovering, from Frida Kahlo to Netflix series Lady Dynamite, all the while juxtaposing her personal experiences with the broader politics of representation. The first three essays stand out for their incandescence and candour, surprising the reader yet providing enough room to breathe. In contrast, many of the later essays take a detached approach, shifting the focus from memoir to policy and cultural criticism.

Maslen interrogates what a fulfilled life looks like, inviting readers to reflect on their own body, how it is perceived and the structures that enable, or inhibit, one’s choices. She briefly acknowledges the additional barriers trans and intersex people and people of colour face in accessing safe healthcare. Cycling through different treatments, Maslen has learnt to identify the signs of approaching storms; there is no cure. Show Me Where It Hurts speaks to those with scars, while urging those with no lived experience of chronic illness and disability to question their preconceptions.

Shu-Ling Chua

Text, 304pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 31, 2020 as "Kylie Maslen, Show Me Where It Hurts".

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Reviewer: Shu-Ling Chua