Shapeshifting and the Lived Experience of Chronic Illness

Jane Hartshorn explores the female body and the abject, blurring the boundaries between the human and animal.

In Orcadian folklore, the selkie is a ‘skin walker’ or ‘seal person’; a mythological creature who can change from seal to human form by shedding its skin. I have always been fascinated by tales of shapeshifting creatures, the ability to transform into something else, and the porous boundary between human and animal. 

In a particular iteration of the myth — and the one I read (or was read to me) as a child — a fisherman steals a selkie’s seal skin to prevent her from returning to the sea. She marries him and they have children, yet she longs to return to her seal form. One day, she finds the skin and escapes to the sea. Although her family never see her again, a seal will appear near the shore on the children’s birthdays, head bobbing above the waves.

What particularly struck me about the tale as a child was that the selkie continued to yearn for the sea, despite having a husband and children whom she loved. The story provided a different kind of ‘happily ever after’ from the one I was used to in fairy tales, or from the things I was expected to desire from life. It is only as an adult that I can understand the significance of this; as a thirty-something woman aware that my biological clock is ticking, the pressure to start a family is everywhere (targeted pregnancy test ads haunt the corners of my laptop screen). The selkie myth offers an alternative ending, one where I need not be defined by my (in)ability to procreate.

In recent years, my fascination with the story has grown deeper, as the figure of the selkie resonates with my experience of chronic illness. The selkie is never happy in her human form and remains desperate to return to her seal skin. The feeling of being in the ‘wrong’ skin is one I’m acutely familiar with; illness often feels like being a stranger in your own body.

Chronic illness or disease is often described as a foreign intruder, an alien ‘other’ that takes root in the body, a kind of parasite eating the self from inside out. Autoimmune conditions involve a rejection of self; the brain identifies the body as other and attacks it. The sick person may feel trapped in a body that will not bend to the mind’s will, which refuses to conform to normative standards of how bodies should behave.

Although I have tried to assimilate my illness into my sense of identity, this slippage between mind and body is something I feel every day. There are so many things I want to do with my life — I have dreams and desires like everyone else — yet, some days even taking a shower and dressing is enough to send me back to bed. Whilst I struggle to care for myself, having a child does not seem like a tenable option.

This friction of skin, the schism between mind and body is one I attempt to portray in my poem ‘Therianthrope’, which reimagines the selkie myth from the perspective of the selkie herself. In the poem, I explore the contours of the selkie’s body as a way of examining my own experience of illness:

the coming apart

was slippery pink                          thin membrane               of skin spreading                  open-veined               

                                                                        in his bathtub

                             my kneecaps spotted violet                      triangle of my tailbone scraped raw

from the enamel

As in illness, the boundaries of selkie’s body are fluid, mutable, subject to fragmentation. She exists within a perpetual state of becoming — becoming strange, becoming other than herself. 

The poem was shaped in part by Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject. The abject refers to substances that are expelled by the body, such as blood, faeces, mucus, and urine. Kristeva describes the abject as that which ‘disturbs identity, system, order’ (1982: 4); the abject reveals that the body is a permeable construct, always on the verge of spilling over.

In illness, bodily functions can be harder to control. Abject substances move from interior to exterior, crossing the porous membrane of the body. They are both ‘me’ and ‘not me’; it is not clear where the body begins and ends. In its refusal to ‘respect borders, positions, rules’, the abject draws the subject into a liminal state of being, one where the notion of the self as a discrete entity is dissolved (1982: 4).

Kristeva writes that the abject signifies ‘the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite’ (1982: 4), ‘a fragile state where man strays on the territory of animal’ (1982:12). The abject reminds us of our animalistic origins and the vulnerability of our bodies; it represents the inevitability of death and must be ‘radically excluded’ (1982: 2) in order to protect the integrity of the self. However, if we embrace the ambiguity of this border, perhaps this in-between state can be interpreted as the amorphous body of the human-animal.

The artist Kiki Smith explores this liminal state within her work. In her bronze sculpture Born (2002), a deer gives birth to a woman. Smith aligns the reproductive body with the animal: both expand, swell and change shape during menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth. My poem ‘Arrival’ was influenced by this sculpture, however, I reconceptualise the birth depicted as an emergence:

waist-deep in old shape. 

the hem pleating around ankles. 

my implements

their sharp edges waxing crescent.

The sick subject experiences a kind of perpetual rebirth in terms of remission and flare, periods of stability followed by instability ad Infinitum. The periods of remission feel like an awakening; a temporary return to the world after a long hibernation. The short, clipped lines and phrases in ‘Arrival’ describe a subject that has been fragmented by the experience of illness. Disjointed and at times mismatched, the lines do not quite meet at the seams, leaving ragged edges, gaps the reader has to stitch together. 

I was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition when I was 13 years old, just as I was entering puberty. My body became a site of extreme change, and it was difficult for me to distinguish between ‘normal’ bodily changes and signs of dysfunction and disease. The symptoms of menstruation were similar to those of illness; bloating, stomach cramps, fatigue. The development of my breasts seemed to me a sign that something terrible was happening within; a creature was growing inside me at an alarming rate.

In my prose poem ‘The Animal At My Chest’ both puberty and disease coalesce in the body of the human-animal. The animal in the story is never identified, however, there are traces of canine, of a wolf-like form that exists at the margins of the text and threatens chaos from within. 

It appears under my arms first. Wet, new born, fawn down. I am pleased. It keeps coming. Darker whorls. Knots on pinewood. The girl asks if she can look. Pushes her breasts against the glass of the shower door. Steam and pink flesh. I know to hide it. I have an idea that something is going wrong. I imagine growing a thick pelt of dark hair. That way no one will know.

I’m interested in the figure of the werewolf as an avatar for the lived experience of chronic illness. In her monthly metamorphosis from human to wolf and back again, the werewolf encapsulates the mutability of both the reproductive and the sick body. The full moon is often associated with menstruation, and illness, too, waxes and wanes, is cyclical in nature.

Kristeva writes that the skin is a ‘fragile container’ (1982: 53); a border between the internal and the external. In the example of the werewolf, this border is completely dissolved during metamorphosis. Described as hairy on the inside, werewolves are said to turn their skin inside out, embodying the abject fear of one’s insides spilling to the outside.

As a hirsute creature, the werewolf can also subvert patriarchal ideals of feminine beauty. In 1654, John Bulwer declared that ‘woman is by nature smooth and delicate; and if she have many hairs she is a monster’ (Priest, 2015: 77). There is still an expectation that women’s bodies should be clean-shaven, pre-pubescent. The sanitised body of the ideal woman not only represents beauty but also control and order. Women are encouraged to use anti-wrinkle cream, wear shapewear pants, pluck their eyebrows, dye their grey roots. The ideal women’s body is frozen in time and bears no trace of the changes that are natural to ageing. 

By drawing on the strange and the fantastic, I attempt to push the limits of reality in order to explore the lived experience of chronic illness. The poems are rooted in my own experiences, however, the body of the human-animal enables me to work through the complexity of my feelings surrounding illness; it gives me the freedom to really dig into some of the knots and sticking points of my past, examine my relationship with my body, and unbraid the entangled threads of puberty and illness.

As well as a means through which to challenge hegemonic ideas about acceptable and unacceptable bodies, the human-animal can also challenge patriarchal ideology and the pressures it places on women to adhere to ideals of femininity and desirability. The anomalous body of the human-animal is a site of resistance; an unruly, vociferous, prickly figure that refuses to conform to social conventions. She is out of control; oozing and seeping in public, a wild-haired woman, grizzled and sagging — and a reminder that all bodies are in motion, implicated in a continual process of deterioration and decay.


Works Cited

Kristeva, Julia, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982) 

Priest, Hannah (ed.), She-Wolf: A Cultural History of Female Werewolves (Manchester University Press, 2015)

Poems

Therianthrope’ in amberflora Issue 5, ed. by Katy Lewis Hood & Pratyusha, 2018 

‘The Animal At My Chest’ in Disturbing the Body, ed. by Nici West (Boudicca Press, 2021)

‘Arrival’ in ‘Monsters, Monstrosity and the (In)Humanities’, forthcoming from Exclamat!on Journal Summer 2021

Artwork

Kiki Smith, Born, 2002, bronze sculpture