Constellations is a book about being
human. It is about being a woman in society, in Ireland, and a good deal more.
The politics and power of language, pain, illness, health, adventure, and love
are illustrated in these beautifully formed essays threading together Gleeson’s
personal experiences with that of other writers and artists in exploring the
strengths and weaknesses of our wonderful and fragile human form. The texts are
confrontation and celebration of these things in a brutal and honest way. There
is no apology, no sentiment here and it is all the more powerful and important
Gleeson has written a book that encapsulates so much of the human experience,
of life as a woman, as many women. It examines the pressure to conform, to have
children, to live a ‘good life’ as religion and society dictate. This wonderful
book follows a life rich with love and devastated by loss. Overarching themes,
however, are of the political nature of women’s bodies and the political nature
of illness – the importance of having a voice (and using it) and of having
autonomy over your own body and the implications when you don’t.
“Women learn early that absorbing pain is a
means of martyrdom making us closer to the bodies of saints as if discomfort
equates to religious ecstasy. That there is meaning in suffering, except when
there is not.”
series of essays dismantles the body to it’s component parts, and rebuilds it
again, with all our wonky quirky bits as memories of experiences endured –
bone, blood, hair, pain, love – things that bind us. Gleeson shares stories of how
confronting our bodies can be, to us and other people, and she names the things
that need naming. Taking us through history and across disciplines – including
the arts, religion and science – Gleeson highlights a history also, of
language. Euphemisms and words dressed up are rarely helpful, they leave more
questions and uncertainty. Language should help to clarify, for words to give
detail – not to be hidden behind.
is a celebration of life and a celebration of all of those who have gone before
us, to save, renew, and extend lives in blood transfusions, chemotherapy
treatments, and hip replacements. It scratches the surface of past traditions
and beliefs connected to the body and its various component parts, and what
happens when they don’t work in the way we expect them to.Constellations shows the reader also, how these things define time
– there is a ‘before’ and an ‘after’, and perspective alters with this. It
affects us in ways that cannot be anticipated, and it is rarely exclusively
Aged 13 Sinéad Gleeson learned quickly to be embarrassed of her body and its awkwardness, not just because she was now a teenager and attitudes and attention in society shifted as her body did, but at 13 Gleeson also underwent a major operation on her hip. A year of recovery, using crutches and absent from school and she became acutely aware of an emotional as well as a physical discomfort.
“I wanted to make myself smaller, to minimize
the space I took up. I read that shrews and weasels can shrink their own bones
scars from this, and subsequent operations and injury, remain a physical trace
on her body. Gleeson’s scars and implants of metal fixings are her starting
point, the title a reference to these. The stars and planets that twinkle in
the dark, lighting up the night and fusing time – a reminder of what has
passed, of what has been endured, of what she has recovered from. We are, after
all made up of stardust.
“Our bodies are records – traces of all they
have weathered are held in scars.”
stories of her pregnancies and hip replacement are told by her body, not to
mention the traumatic removal of her body cast where the doctor ignored both
her and her mother’s cries to stop when the rotating saw cut through, not just
her cast but into her legs.
on bone, hair and blood, elements we all share, are beautifully constructed
essays exploring these elements through time. Gleeson writes eloquently on the
significance and power of each of these elements, illustrating her own life
threatening conditions. Blood, all the more significant, as Gleeson writes of
her diagnosis with leukaemia, her bones and her blood threatening her life and
causing great pain.
“This may not be war, but there are two
sides. The well and the unwell; doctors and patients…
…This malfunctioning version of me was a new
treasonous place. I did not know it, I did not speak its language. The sick
body has its own narrative impulse. A scar is an opening, an invitation to ask:
‘what happened?’ So we tell its story. Or try not to…”
is key, both physically and emotionally as Gleeson endures, not just illness
and injury as her body lets her down, but medical abuse and pain at the hands
of the doctors served to treat her. The excerpts about medical abuse and
medical ignorance are pertinent and powerful. Reflecting on her own
relationships with medics and experience of being a patient important conversations
are opened up – the imbalance of power, the role we are ascribed to in getting
sick, our lack of voice. These are important, indeed crucial conversations that
must be had between medics and clinicians and their patients. For further
medical abuse and neglect to change these are key dialogues to be had. Gleeson
highlights an observation of how those invested in their own treatment are often
viewed as “transgressive” – this will resonate with many who have complex
illnesses, illnesses that are not yet understood or not yet diagnosed –
patients who arguably have more knowledge and understanding than their GP’s
tasked with treating them. Learning a new language to navigate the departments
and medical professions to get the treatment they need is not always celebrated
as an engaged and proactive patient. The experience of illness is a political
yet, there are also acts of great warmth experienced in hospitals. Writing of
one consultation with a nurse:
“Her voice is matter of fact and professional
but there is kindness too, almost imperceptible. Patients are so attuned to
these small gestures that we notice. They matter.”
is a book of humanity and humility. Pain and illness will affect us all, if it
hasn’t already. It is a great leveler and yet is perhaps least talked about,
the burden that comes with it silencing us with shame. Having experienced this
at an early age Sinéad Gleeson breaks its power through naming and sharing. She
writes clearly and elegantly about what it is like and how others impact and
affect us in these, our most vulnerable times. She reflects on the life and
work of Frida Kahlo who painted “in
absence of words for pain felt” as “the
physical experience resists words, refuses to reside within letters. They fall
short.” Gleeson gifts us with her own words.
“Pain is a reminder of existence, bordering
on the Cartesian. Sentio ergo sum: I feel, therefore I am. Some translations
suggest Patior ergo sum: I hurt/suffer, therefore I am.”
and writers and artists who dwell on illness and imperfect bodies, examine the
experience and the physical presence.
“Hospitals are not unlike galleries.
Interactive spaces; a large installation of sound and colour, evoking emotion
and working on the senses…[while similarities continue] between the work and
approach…of physicians and surgeons, and painters and sculptors.”
Constellations explores the foundations of life and what it is to be human, and
yet it feels revolutionary. When one in five of us are disabled and many more
will experience failings in our physical health at one point or another, this
is an inevitable and uncomfortable truth. There will be few people that go
unaffected by profound and life impacting conditions. Those of us who
experience these conditions experience also the burden of shame and stigma.
This keeps us quiet and serves only to exacerbate distress. It is frightening
to us and to others around us when human frailty is exposed. It is only with
its naming that understanding and acceptance will come, in time. This is not
the experience of the few but the many. At a time when disability, chronic
illness and the burden on society has become so political, and such a commonly
referenced headline, this is the antidote. Being vulnerable, as we all are, is
key to our survival, but it can be the most challenging thing to endure.
takes us through our life cycle, from birth to death and the many steps in between.
Touchingly Gleeson dedicates the last essay in the book to her Godmother,
Terry, an incredible woman who spent her latter years fluctuating in and out of
this world. Living with dementia, Terry is portrayed as a woman of importance
and meaning throughout, her memory sustained by this essay and Gleeson’s love
for her, even when her own memory was not in her grasp. We are shown a way of
leaving this world where compassion and love endures, of having scented oils on
our pillow, candles and daises by the bed, while being read to, cream rubbed
into hands. The power of touch, the importance of thought and kindness, even
when – especially when – our world is coming to an end, when we cannot be sure
if a person has already left us, before their body has died.
the discovery of Gleeson’s diagnosis of leukaemia, in an attempt to quell the
fear and distress of her parents, she proclaimed:
“I am not going to die. I’m
going to write a book.”
she did. And it is beautiful.
“To commit to writing, or
art, is to commit to living.”
These are words I hold close, this is a woman I would like to know. She has done what she promised, not died but written a book. Constellations is a gift for humankind as we navigate our physical frailties, and the things we cannot choose. It’s author tells us there are other choices that we can make and this book shows us that is possible.
Constellations is published today by Picador.