In an early episode of Mad Men, our wonderfully awkward, career-driven heroine, Peggy, gives birth without realizing she was pregnant to begin with. It is as much of a surprise to her as it is to those watching. However, as impossible as this might seem, it has precedent, particularly during historical periods when conceiving out of wedlock was social suicide. Our brains are so powerful that we can live in denial of indisputable bodily facts.
I remember the scene struck a chord with me. No, I had never surprised myself by birthing a baby, but I identified with the sense of disassociation from one’s own body. As a woman living in New York City, whose body is on display daily, I have developed, like many other women, a fraught relationship with it. Sometimes I catch myself referring to it like another person. “My body didn’t like that” I say after eating spicy food. Who controls my body? Could something happen in there that I don’t know about? Am I my body or something else?
The fact that we are living does not distinguish us as human beings. But the fact that we can think, talk, and write about living does. We create a meta-narrative of books, movies, and television because we find ourselves so endlessly interesting. We also overcomplicate and over-explain. Like a high school relationship, we can’t just do the thing — in this case, live — we have to talk about it, write poems about it, get to the bottom of it.
New Yorker staff writer, Jill Lepore’s well-researched and emotionally intelligent new book The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death, discusses how people relate to life and death, and how those relations have morphed throughout history. Before 1840, the menstrual cycle remained a mystery. Now we understand more, which has allowed us to invent the pill, leading to redefinitions of life and discussions about who possesses the rights to a woman’s body. The debate over birth control, initially, was a debate about population control and economic relief for poor immigrant families. Since then it has transformed. Now it’s a fundamental fight for gender equality.
In a chapter titled “The Gate of Heaven,” Lepore talks about life support, which also, not very long ago, didn’t exist. I was in high school when the Terri Schiavo case was breaking news. What do you think her family should do? Someone asked me. Was I obligated to have an opinion? At the time I thought I was. If I am to be an adult in this world, I have to have unshakeable personal beliefs about life and death. But as technology breaks new ground, our notions about living are muddled. Nothing is unshakeable.
As I read the book, lines of poetry surfaced in my mind. John Donne writes famously about life and death, and its public versus private aspects: “no man is an island / entire of itself.” I thought of Shakespeare: “to be or not to be.” I thought of Tracy K. Smith, this year’s Pulitzer Prize recipient, who writes about life, death, God, and the future of the universe: “women will still be women / but the distinction will be empty. Sex / having outlived every threat will gratify / only the mind, which is where it will exist.” The history of poetry is the history of shifting conceptions of life, the body, where we come from and what the future holds.
In this sense, Lepore’s new book is the stuff that poetry is made of. Beginning with insemination, each chapter centers around a different stage of “life,” and its historical re-imagining. You might not have realized that life stages have histories. But the notion of the “teenager,” the transitional period between childhood and adulthood, is fairly new. And thank goodness it exists, because what would we do without Nirvana or The Wonder Years?
The book starts with the first pictures taken of a human fetus, by Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson in, aptly named, LIFE magazine. When Nilsson was five years old he fell through some ice while skating and, after being pulled out, reported “there were some very interesting things to see down there..” Through deft swerves in the narrative like this, Lepore demonstrates that even those who make history have histories of their own.
The book ends with a man who freezes the dead, hoping that technology will one day have the power to resurrect. In between, Lepore tells the history of artificial insemination, the invention of children’s libraries, science journalism, Planned Parenthood, old age as a diagnosable disease, the addition of the word “germ” and “happiness minutes” to the English lexicon. Lepore’s history isn’t single-file. She weaves names and dates, illuminates unlikely connections; she is a master storyteller.
When my little brother was a kid, he thought babies came from a woman’s bellybutton. It turns out he wasn’t any less informed than male scientists in the 16th and 17th centuries. Women were thought to have the same sex organs as men, merely turned inside out, like a reversible jacket, and ovaries were deemed “female testicles.” The female orgasm was thought to supply heat for conception to occur, which was why a woman couldn’t charge a man with rape if she became pregnant. Apparently, the use of purportedly “scientific” evidence as a tool for female repression has its history too.
Lepore often links the age of discovery, exploration, and the New World to increasing interest about the origins of life. Poets, writers, and artists have made connections between landscape and the body, but Lepore argues the point brilliantly using historical documents. For Lepore, the exploration of uncharted territory extends to outer space, sci-fi movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey in which Kubrick imagines a universe where humans can procreate without the necessity of women.
Much of this book is about the human impulse to deny our own bodies; breast pumps, ectogenesis, the myth of the stork, Sylvester Graham — a preacher in the early 1800s who fervently condemned masturbation — the book Stuart Little, in which an adult human gives birth to an adult mouse. (Excuse me, he isn’t born, he “arrives.”) The more we know, the less we want to admit. Parenthood magazines capitalized on a population’s deep wish to “unknow” everything they had come to know, and then relearn it again. Lepore sardonically describes this notion of parenthood as “being so inept that you are a danger to your own children.”
In the ’60s and ’70s political campaigns appropriated the rhetoric of “life” for their own gain. The term “sanctity of life,” a term we hear frequently during election time, first appeared in 1972. Life itself hasn’t changed. We are all still born, struggle through puberty, stumble through a first job, fall in love. Last I checked, we all still die too. What has changed is the knowledge, method, and language for living. “The longer we live, the longer we die,” Lepore writes near the closing pages. She could also say: the more we know about living, the harder living becomes.
Last week I went on a road trip with my father through the West — Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota — some of the most desolate parts of the United States. Big sky, big prairie is an appropriate setting for thinking about big issues. Do I want to live for work or work to live? Why did I spend my adolescence along Los Angeles freeways instead of Dakota farmland? At the end of the trip, after learning about Buffalo Bill, the Indian Wars, and Lewis and Clark, my father pulled the parking break and said to me, “learn as much as you can, figure out what’s important and teach it to your children.” That was my father’s vision of life. Like Lepore’s it was related to history; how we connect to the past and how we communicate that story to future generations.