Wednesday, October 17, 2007


As a member of the British Sociological Association (no less!) my attention was drawn to the book 'Fracture' by Annie Oakley.

Annie Oakley is a professor of sociology who one icy day in the US slipped outside a motel and broke her right elbow. It was a complicated fracture and resulted in her losing the feeling in much of her right hand. Let me rephrase that - she lost the feeling that she has a right hand even though she could see it. Weird, and terrifying, no? My mother broke her left elbow a couple of years ago but avoided this little complication.

Now put together in a pot the idea of a professor of sociology, broken bones, the US and UK health systems and the US legal system - the outcome becomes very interesting. Oakley uses her experience (which caused her to take early retirement in the end) to debate, in places rather amusingly, all kinds of issues about the concepts of 'body' and 'self' and the roles of women and patients. I may lose the plot as I go on; this is all rather complicated.

She describes how she arrives in a hospital in the back of beyond in the US, and her similarly sociologist professor friends interrogate the surgeon about evidence-based medicine, of which he disclaims all knowledge. The trio of them must be rather intimidating to the medical staff.

She goes on to describe the aftermath of the accident, the endless physiotherapy with Teresa, a very imaginative physiotherapist, the legal battles. She debates the role of the body in connection to the self - the best body is the body we don't feel; once it is damaged it changes our self, too (eg from independent to dependent). She complains that in correspondence with the American lawyer a doctor writes that she has no complaints, but she cannot remember ever being asked such a question. Doctors look at bodies, but do not take into account the patient's experience of being in that body (and of what a body might be required to do for the patient). I know what she means - two years ago I twisted my ankle with an audible ping on the outside of the foot; both doctors I saw ignored my report of this, and now sometimes it gives me (a very little) gip.

She hilariously describes a series of experiments researching the experience of sensation by a couple of Cambridge dons, Head and Rivers, involving the dunking of Head's penis into glasses of water of different temperature, sometimes involving the foreskin, sometimes not. Apparently there is a difference. (It is relevant to the sensation or otherwise she has in her right hand).

Then she goes off at a long tangent about women's health and bodies (also how at the end of pregnancy one body splits into two) and how it supports a whole pharmaceutical industry what with HRT and Osteoporosis drugs, as well as all those check ups and breast squeezing women have to go through, with as she says hardly any evidence that it makes a beneficial difference.

Finally she describes the horrendous process of the US law which requires the lawyers to have access to her entire medical history (that's the advantage I have having moved countries twice; I can forget the less relevant bits of my medical history) - in the process of which she finds that it is full of mistakes, including adding an extra 100 pounds to her weight. She has to explain the UK NHS system to a US lawyer in - words - of - one - syllable - and he still does not get it. She gets exasperated but cannot let the case drop because the lawyer is on a no-win no-fee basis and so would not make any money.

It's a fascinating book, unputdownable (whenever can you say that about a sociology book), and in passing a wonderful introduction into the sociology of the body and the self.


varske said...

That must be the Anne Oakley who wrote the Mens Room and another novel in the 80s?

I love books about body/mind. Must get it.