The Personal is Historical
The Body as Archive

The Body as Archive

Trying to become a public historian and freelance writer in grad school is requiring me to walk a difficult tightrope. I want to be as authentic as humanly possible, but I’m also a professor-in-training; I don’t want to put anything out into the world that I would have trouble explaining to a hiring committee, to my colleagues, or to my students. As a result, I often find myself debating the merits of a post. The problem with this particular brand of censorship is that it’s entirely too fuzzy. I haven’t articulated to myself what constitutes fair game. How personal do I want to get? How personal do I need to get?

That’s why, on August 28 — after much hemming and hawing — I ultimately decided to write about a medical procedure I was about to undergo. I want to live in a world where academics living with disabilities aren’t afraid to “come out” for fear of the cultural and institutional ableism to which it would expose them. Telling my own story is a risky, but necessary, step in that process.

Mine was a routine procedure, but as with most medical procedures, there also was nothing routine about it. The following is an excerpt from that post, a post that I knew needed to see the light of day in large part because the thought so petrified me. At the end is a brief summary of the procedure itself, and where I find myself today.

I had my MRI Arthrogram on August 29, and — thanks to an innovative radiologist — got through the procedure with much less pain than I have in times past. Unfortunately, the cortisone injection did not alleviate my pain. The MRA was very helpful in revealing what wasn’t wrong, but — much to the surprise of both myself and my surgeon — did not yield a diagnosis.

And so, the journey continues. I’m now in physical therapy, and making (very) slow but steady progress. I’m extremely optimistic that, while it will take a long time to recover, I will be able to do so without surgical intervention. Until then, my archive remains open, if only just a crack.

Further Reading

Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14:3 (October 1988): 575–599. doi:10.2307/3178066.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy, and Margaret M. Lock. “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 1:1 (March 1987): 6–41. doi:10.2307/648769.


  1. Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14:3 (October 1988), 580. Return to text.

Andrea Milne is a SAGES Teaching Fellow and Full-Time Lecturer in the Department of History at Case Western Reserve University. Her current research focuses on the nurses who developed the first AIDS ward in the United States. She received her PhD from the University of California, Irvine in 2017.

9 thoughts on “The Body as Archive

    • Author gravatar

      Great post, Andrea. Thank you for sharing — I, too, refrain from writing about my experiences except for very generally out of fear of being found out. Your post has inspired me to do better about that, as the disabled and chronically ill need to be heard within academia.

      • Author gravatar

        Thanks so much for reading! As scary as it is to write on this subject, it becomes significantly less so when you know there’s a community behind you. Do let me know if you write anything about your situation, and I’ll happily return the favor!

    • Author gravatar

      I love this, and I love your courage, and can really identify with your hesitation to disclose. I am a transgender academic who completed her PhD in trans studies (medical discourse and fiction) while still living as a cisgender man. While I (and my embodiment) were not the subject of my research, they were certainly implicitly present in everything that I did. I am now contract faculty, and it took me several years to come out as trans in part because I was concerned about my employability as non-tenured academic labour. Recently, though, I have begun to find ways of bringing my own experience of embodiment to bear as a (kind of) theoretical tool in new research that I’m embarking on. So I’m delighted to know about another scholar who is thinking about the relationship between her own embodiment and her life in academia. Thanks so much for this post.

      • Author gravatar

        What an incredible story, Mary Ann! Susan Stryker is one of my academic idols, in no small part because she’s made the same brave choices you’ve made in her career, against a tide of bigotry that would have drowned a lesser soul. Cliche as the phrase may be, I think “living your truth” is as much about intellectual honesty as it is about self-actualization, and I’ll add you to the running list of scholars I know who are doing just that! Thank you for reading.

    • Author gravatar

      I am inspired by your post and your mission statement. I am an advocate for children with chronic illnesses and their parents. I have been in the medical field for many years and have seen both the changes with technology and a stubborn stagnation refusing to find ‘another way.’ I was a Critical Care RN when the AIDS epidemic hit in the eighties. Then I had a son with chronic illnesses and struggled with all that entails. I not only had my sick child, but I also had to find, and fight, my way through a thorny labyrinth of our medical system. I, like yourself, hope to make a difference in many children’s lives and their parents. Keep up the good work on your blog.

      • Author gravatar

        Thank you so much for your kind words, and for the invaluable services you’ve provided, especially to PWAs. It sounds like we’re travelling very similar paths, and I’m very glad for the company!

    • Author gravatar

      “While I can’t conquer those fears..”
      I would posit that since you’ve went through the procedures, more than once, you did “conquer those fears.” Congrats!

      I strongly agree with the concept of body being culturally constructed and therein lies one of our pitfalls. The concept of body in Western civilization has its most incidious roots in the Adam and Eve mythology. This invisible and visible societal permeation has given rise to such false ideas that a woman’s body (and therefore a woman) is inferior to a man’s, that medical research done on men applies the same to women, pregnancy is an illness, etc.

      This cultural concept of body is also one strong reason for “I would have trouble explaining to a hiring committee, to my colleagues, or to my students.” Ask yourself, how much trouble would I have explaining the same if I was in a male body?

      You write beautifully and the wonderful strength of who YOU are (as opposed to your body) comes through and will serve as inspiration for others. Whether you realize it or not, you are creating beauty from the suffering you are going through and helping others through your creations. Most all the suffering in the world today we humans have created; through your actions you are helping to lessen the suffering of others. Thank you!

      • Author gravatar

        Thank you so much for your incredibly kind words. I will do my best to deserve them, both now and in the future.

        I agree with you that women’s bodies–and indeed, our very existence–are seen as open to criticism in a way that male bodies are not, and that’s as true (if not more so) in academia as it is anywhere else. That said, I think Rosemarie Garland-Thomson is also right in her assertion that men with disabilities are constructed as feminine, as objects to be gazed upon, as inherently less than. Such is the power of patriarchy. A depressing thought, but comments like yours are a wonderful reminder that power isn’t uni-directional.

        Thanks again for your support.

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