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Colleges, Prisons, and Hospitals: A Semester in Three Walled Communities

jhunter's picture

“When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.”

                                                                                                                ---Adrienne Rich


I live in the walled community of Haverford College but also in a second institution—the hospital.


I don’t know why I haven’t spoken of these experiences in class.  Or maybe that’s a lie because I know exactly why.  At any given moment I am either in searing pain, trying to discretely smother the flames burning down my arm, or else I am using all my mental capacity to follow discussion while my brain is hazy from pain medication.


My medical issues and resulting pain are simultaneously the subjects about which I speak the most and the things that create the largest silences in my life.  I see an average of four different doctors a week to whom I deliver monologues of my most recent, pertinent, and/or debilitating symptoms.  Add in driving time to and from appointments, time spent in waiting rooms, blood work, some type of neurological imaging, phone calls to past and future doctors, trips daily to CVS for a new prescription or two, debates in my mind about whether I can stay up past 8 or 9 PM, evening prayers that I will be healthy enough to go to class the next day, and I spend enough time dealing with this that it is excruciatingly boring to type out a summary.  It’s immensely tempting to erase everything I’ve written, as I do when talking to friends, family, and acquaintances.


I have already felt some guilt about silencing myself (or choosing to be silent?  I still grapple with the language) to some extent on the topic in class, failing to comment on why I need to stand sometimes when my pain medication doesn’t numb me enough to allow me to sit.  Why is it so difficult to talk about the things about which we feel the most?  Others’ decisions to break their silences in class have profoundly affected me; I don’t wish to be a part of an educational environment where emotion and reason cannot coexist or where one is favored as a greater harbinger of “truth.”  I have grown up entangled in structures of power, and part of me finds the classroom in its separation from “real life,” full of the multisyllabic words of reason that often mean less than silence, comforting.  I swaddle myself in academia, listen to the lullaby of Foucaldian discourse, and pray it will be enough to put my body to sleep.  And it never is.


 It is up to me to choose to share the silences in my life because I know that, unless my next surgery is performed with magic instead of modern medicine, I won’t be well any time soon.  I have chronic conditions that will forever interrupt my life, making me feel caught within and between two separate sets of walls.  I cannot be a student over a patient nor can I pretend that one label defines me and the other does not.  They both inform the majority of the decisions I make each day, and one doesn’t disappear because I happen to be in class while I’m sick.  After all, if I can do most of my reading for school in hospital waiting rooms, then it seems that I could at least bring some of who I am in the hospital into the classroom.


I’m still somewhat flummoxed by our conversations and my own wandering thoughts from the past few weeks of Silence (capital S for the class as opposed to the practice).  I hope to find a balance between accepting that my body will silence me and recognizing—or embracing—that I still have the power to speak.


I’ll end as I started, with another quote by Adrienne Rich, as I’m making my way through her aptly titled, On Lies, Secrets, And Silence: Selected Prose.


“Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images…whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language - this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable.”



Sarah's picture

Thank you for sharing


I read your paper this morning and have been thinking of it all day, but don't quite know how to respond.  I want to say thank you for writing it, but don't want to sound patronizing or cheesy.  I don't quite know what I feel, but I feel really impacted by reading this paper and can only think to say thank you for sharing with us.

couldntthinkofanoriginalname's picture


Julia, thank you for sharing your story and wanting to do it versus feeling like you had to--I hope you never felt like you owed us an explanation for why you would wordlessly take a moment to take care of yourself in class. I believe your honesty will open doors for others to reveal "silent" identities of themselves as well. It has for me! Thank you for giving me the opportunity to understand you.

360 love,