I had an hour or so to wait for a friend in York recently so I dived into the main council library to while away the time. The library, located just up the road from the train station and near the leafy surroundings of the Yorkshire museum, houses a fine selection of books for the bibliophile. Little did I know, however, that as I meandered over to the social sciences section and perused the shelves I would come across this gem of a book on broken bones and the body by sociologist Ann Oakley. After reading a page or two I realised I had to get this book out and devour it, perhaps knowing that this was the kind of book that I had hoped to one day write myself.
Any regular reader will know that I love bones, how they are used and studied in the archaeological record to how bone disease has affected and shaped my own life: the skeletal system, in short, is simply fascinating. Thus the book, with a cover displaying an x-ray of the author’s own comminuted fracture of her right humerus, bade me to borrow it and take it away from the confines of York for a few weeks (it has now been safety returned and I’ve bought a copy myself).
Oakley, a distinguished Professor of sociology and social policy at the Institute of Education at the University of London and a prolific author, has produced a fine slim volume in ‘Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body’. The book’s focal point is the fracture she sustained whilst at a conference in America, how her broken right humerus and subsequent ulnar nerve injury led her to reassess the vitality and human essence of the body/mind connection in modern Western society. This numbness, an effect of surgery carried out to mend her badly comminuted fracture, led to her dominant right hand losing the sensations of touch and feeling for a sustained period. As such this fundamentally altered Oakley’s ability to carry out daily tasks, indeed it alters and shifts her perception of her body and her self. The right hand, so often dominantly figurative and symbolic in society, is, after her accident, now a shadow of its former self for Oakley.
This is further re-enforced by the treatment of her body (but not her experiences or thoughts) by the medical experts, and at the hands of the greedy and extended process of the litigation culture in America. The persuasive and intrusive nature of surveillance in the medico-legal profession in particular comes under some pretty damning criticism. The impact of the fall has ramifications beyond the personal and the physical however, as Oakley states that ‘the problem of bodies is that they’re both material objects and the site of human experiences’ (Oakley 2007: 15).
The book’s central tenet is to explore ‘the relationship that exists between the body and consciousness, between the experience of living in a body and being a person with knowledge and understanding, and a distinct individual and social identity’ (Oakley 2007: 32). The societal view of the body is a particularly stark point in this book, and can make for uncomfortable reading, especially when the attitudes of modern society towards elderly females are explored and highlighted. Oakley is a well known feminist sociologist and it is when broaching the societal impacts of the perception of the body, particularly when it focuses on the female form and hormone replacement therapy, that this book is on it’s strongest form (Reid 2008). Oakley repeatably makes clear and succinct use of a variety of sources to counter long held views in the medical profession, especially what the doctor could learn from talking to the patient, and whilst it could be criticised that Oakley overdramatises at times, the book remains highly readable (Watson 2007: 7606).
For me personally, it was wonderful to read a book that ran alongside (and sometimes counter) to some of my own views and experiences of hospital life, especially regarding post-hospital life after a traumatic event. It is good to agree with views, it is even better to be handed a new paradigm in which to view aspects of life, and it is perhaps this that is one of the book’s many gifts.
This book then is a combination of autobiography, neurology, social theory and literary fiction, detailed with a tremendous range of subjects linked together by the chains of the commonality of the human body; what it experiences and lives through, and how it changes. By using her own experiences as a defining exposure of the frailty of the human frame, Oakley broadens the theme outwards to engage the audience to think deeply on what it means to be a body and a person in modern Western society, both how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive others.
Oakley, A. 2007. Fracture: Adventures Of A Broken Body. Bristol: Policy Press.
Reid, M. O. 2008. A Feminist Sociological Imagination? Reading Ann Oakley. Sociology of Health & Illness. 5 (1): 83-94.
Watson, J. 2007. Fractured: Picking Up The Pieces. British Medical Journal. 334 (7606): 1275.