When the author and sociologist, Ann Oakley, broke her arm outside her hotel in Colorado, she not only fractured her humerus, she ruptured her identity; the meaning of her life; her soul.  It was her right hand.  She was a writer.  It was her link with the world. She could not function as herself.  She had no role.  In time, she regained the function in her limb, but she has never regained the sensation.  Her ulnar nerve had been damaged in the fall. The lower part of her arm was like dead meat.  It worked – that was all the medics were worried about – but it didn’t belong to her.  She could touch it, stick pins in it, even burn it and she couldn’t feel anything.  It was like she had lost that part of her body.  Loss of sensation in the hands and the feet is a feature of leprosy.  The mycobacterium attacks the nerves.  The reason that people with leprosy lost digits is that the rats ate them during the night.  Perhaps the animals knew.  Perhaps the loss of sensation contributed to the status of lepers as outcast.  


We experience our environment through our bodies.  Everything we know is perceived through our five major senses, sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch but also by other, no less important senses like proprioception (where our body is in space), nociception (the detection of pain) and intuition (our gut feeling about what has or has not happened).  And all that we perceive is filtered by an intelligent computer, that has been programmed by our sensory experience to ‘make sense’ of our existence.  But that existence can only be experienced through our bodies.  Our identity is the embodiment of everything that has happened to us.  When something happens to our body, it changes us, alters our identity.    


Most of the time, we are unaware of the workings of our body.  We take our body for granted.  We only really get to know our body when something goes wrong.  I have often wondered how differently the blind ‘see’ the world or the deaf ‘hear’.  My mother suffers from deafness and I am only too aware how painfully this isolates her.  Her hearing aids do not permit the normal filtering and modulation of sound.  Mealtimes are torture; the conversation she wants to hear is at the same level of the scraping of forks, the clink of glasses.  And how dreadful it must be for anybody, let alone a vigorous young man, to lose all sensation below the waist.               


But if we lose sensation, do we also lose intuition?  Intuition is not what I would regard as a primary sensation.  It’s more an awareness of how our body reacts to what happens or might happen – the meaning of our lives as expressed the way our body ‘feels’.  But what if our body doesn’t feel, do we imagine or remember it ‘feeling?’  Can we still know  when something doesn’t feel right?  Patients with so called ‘locked in syndrome’, in which they feel nothing of their body are said to be strangely calm, but how can anybody else really know?  


If loss of sensation depletes our identity, what happens when our body is in pain?  The  answer is that it takes over our identity. If we have a pain in our tooth, we can think of nothing else.  We become the toothache. 


But pain is as much a psychic feeling as a physical sensation.  It is exaggerated and may even be induced by something dreadful happening in our lives.  The connection between mind and body goes both ways.  Whatever happens to us is given meaning by being translated into bodily sensations.  So a headache may be something that is literally blowing our mind, backache can be the sign of an intolerable mental burden, chest pain can be heartache.  If something is bothering us, it is our body that feels it and tells the story. 


So not only can damage to the body fracture the identity, but if the meaning of our life, what I think of as our soul, is fractured by the vicissitudes of life,  this has to expressed through our bodies.     



‘Fracture; Adventures of a Broken Body’ by Ann Oakley is published in paperback by The Policy Press (2007)