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Inhabiting the flesh: Trauma and the body in twentieth-century women's autobiography

Janis Jean Greve, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation focuses on five contemporary women's autobiographies that each in some way revolves around a "traumatic" experience and reconstructs an impaired self through the act of writing. Defining trauma as an emotional and/or physical wound to the self which--in the case of these texts--initiates personal writing, I begin by showing how my topic situates itself within femininist approaches to women's autobiography and poststructuralist ideas of the textuality of the self. Chapter One explicates Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood in terms of her combatting impulses as an autobiographer to both recover and avenge important figures in her life. As I indicate in my introduction, McCarthy's narrative also serves as a model of the various "crises" of self and autobiographical form that preoccupy many twentieth-century autobiographers, including the ones examined here. The following chapter, focusing on Patricia Williams' The Alchemy of Race and Rights: the Diary of a Law Professor, more eplicitly brings the body into my discussion by reading Williams' inscriptions of race and body in her revisions of pervasive legal structures that deny her subjectivity. The dissertation shows how both of these texts employ personal narrative as a kind of resolution to the trauma of self they describe. The desire for a "cure" becomes more literal in the following three chapters, where I examine the works of Nancy Mairs, Mary Swander, and Lucy Grealy, each of whom takes up the topic of debilitating personal illness. In these chapters I continue to highlight the ways in which the female subject establishes narrative authority--"coming to voice" as a speaker previously silenced--but emphasize more the vagaries of body-self determination, and their relation to personal writing, as these authors present that interaction. Other important ideas that surface within this broader inquiry include the author's treatment of temporality (as it relates to embodiment) in lifewriting, and accident and fate as causal explanations for the embodied self, which get "played out" in writing as well. I conclude by showing how this group of texts also significantly explores disability as social connection and community.

Subject Area

American literature|Biographies|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Greve, Janis Jean, "Inhabiting the flesh: Trauma and the body in twentieth-century women's autobiography" (1998). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9841875.