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THE BODY AS A PRISON – November 2018

Abigail C. Keane Article Contributing Creators THE BODY AS A PRISON - November 2018

Your Body My Choice

Written by Abigail Ceban Keane with Kimmberly Taylor

The topic of abortion, however worn out it may be, still incites fervent debate – a debate that’s drifted further from the truth. For Americans, the nomination, then confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court relit the long-standing desire of conservatives to overturn Roe v. Wade.

US Abortion debates often rope in the well-known provider of a wide variety of reproductive services, Planned Parenthood. They were targeted in 2015 by an anti-abortion group that secretly filmed executives while posing as a company looking to conduct research with fetal tissue. That footage was then edited to make it appear like Planned Parenthood was profiting from selling aborted fetuses.

“Evidence” that Planned Parenthood should be shut down now, is based purely on the allegation that another company is using aborted fetuses in their creams. The company in question, Neocutis, actually harvested protein cells from a privately donated aborted fetus to create an experimental cream to heal severe dermatological issues. For instance, they researched the healing potential of fetal cells to accelerate “the repair process and reduce scarring in severe burns and wounds.”

To be clear, as described here, the procedure is a gross oversimplification. Where “fetus cells” actually means “proteins derived from cultured skin cells”, and the fetus should be replaced with “a terminated pregnancy that could not survive to term and was deemed medically necessary by the attending physicians.” It’s a bit lengthy, but you get it. What should further be considered is the number of people such research could help in the future.

Now what is demonstrated through these extensive qualifications is that the issue of “donating fetuses” is more complicated than just that, not only is it ethically and morally confusing, but also scientifically.

Yet somehow, the “real” experts don’t know how to back down.

The Morality Angle

Once you get past the initial thread of misinformation, you get to the ideological opinions. First, on abortion: is it murder? And if so, can it be justified? Whether or not abortion is considered murder is more a matter of perspective, and that matter won’t be touched upon in this piece. However, the question of justification is a difficult and pertinent one.

To the claim that women should know better than to have sex without taking birth-control, that with common sense they can foresee the outcome and should be prepared, the sarcastic voice of reason replies, “Force her to have a kid she can’t feed, clothe, educate, house or protect while cutting every program that exists to help her, while absolving men of any responsibility for their role in the situation, including rape…I’d call them pro-birthers, not pro-lifers.”

Note that the argument still speaks of two lives, or at least of a life and the potential for another life. If this potential life is calculated to be extremely unfavourable (presumably with the same common sense that urges one to use contraception), then is it not reasonable for a mother to want to prevent the future misery, deprivation, or possible death that could come after carrying out a pregnancy? To be clear, this is not a suggestion that women should get abortions whenever faced with uncertainty. However, personal health and the future wellbeing of a newborn, or the lack thereof, are considerations some women have to face, especially when it comes to unplanned pregnancy, be it an accident in spite of precautions or the result of rape.

Photo by Mihai Surdu

The Tax Angle

Thus, setting aside a lengthy philosophical debate on the notion of life, it’s preservation, and the prevention of harm (assuming there is no truly correct answer), the question then becomes: who decides on when abortion is justified, or whether it is justified at all? This is where the second contention lies: taxes.

Sure, this isn’t the most intuitive way to think about stakeholders, but just as pacifists condemn the use of taxpayers’ money for supporting military interventions, so are others opposed to inadvertently funding a cause that contradicts their beliefs.

In the context of the US, discussing the issue of taxes funding abortions is mostly irrelevant because abortions are not part of the public health services provided by the state, and out of the only 2 programs that do cover the sexual health of women (Title X and Medicaid), only one provides coverage for abortions. Furthermore, of the 32 states where Medicaid provides coverage for abortions, it is generally restricted to cases of rape, incest, and the endangerment of the woman’s health. Essentially, this entire discussion is just the result of more misinformation and oversimplification.

However, if we were to continue this discussion under the false assumption that Planned Parenthood is funded by taxpayers’ money, the vast majority of the services provided by the organization aren’t abortions. Instead, most of their services cover the testing and treatment of STIs and contraception. So guess what, if Planned Parenthood ceased to exist, not only would millions of people suffer from an undetected STI, but significantly more lower-class women would get pregnant due to an inability to afford contraceptives, or due to a lack of knowledge regarding sexual health and contraception to begin with.

Some may then rise in protest: “Well hang on, that’s still our money being spent on abortions!” The reply to that is 1) that is statistically likely to be factually incorrect, and 2) if it were true, please suggest a better alternative.

Weighing Your Values

Now given that this debate is mainly centered around the United States, the discussion of values will mainly apply to the US situation in particular. Notably, the US is built on principles of liberty, according to which people should be free to choose how to spend their lives and what decisions to make without judgement or legal prohibition as long as it does not harm others – abortion is no exception. Thus, we come to the final point of dispute: liberalism.

Though most interpret liberty in the way described above, a few people feel that the classical interpretation is a bit broad and that freedom can be exercised, as long as it’s not funded by others. Essentially, this comes back to the argument of “why should my taxes go to abortion if I don’t agree with it?”

Setting liberalism aside for a minute, another important factor that enters the discussion is the idea of helping others. Specifically, when it comes to Planned Parenthood, one of the central reasons the organization is often defended is the fact that it helps the less fortunate by providing the sexual health services they need for free or at an affordable price – something the US social security services don’t cover. Interestingly enough, according to a 2018 poll by Reuters, many Americans feel that Medicare should be expanded to operate similarly to the universal healthcare programs found in Europe. This demonstrates that many US citizens value a system that provides for the less fortunate (at least when it comes to medical care).

So, the resulting three key values that at the core of the abortion argument are personal beliefs, helping others, and freedom. Realistically, all three of these can’t be compatible in the case of abortion if one holds on to traditional values. Now the following segment is a thought experiment that will outline the three main options that can result from a weighing of those values.

You can only have two.

What are the options?

There’s an old rule that projects want to be good, fast, and cheap, but can only have two of the three qualities. Let’s assume the same goes for the three key values.

The first option is to forget freedom, but have an effective social security system that complies with your personal beliefs. It isn’t a stretch to say that this system is impossible if it were to be based on everyone’s ideologies.

The second possibility is to screw the less fortunate, but maintain the principles of freedom and personal beliefs. If a majority were to choose an extreme version of this option, just imagine the hell we’d live in: there’d be no taxes, and therefore no public education, no public services, no social security – in sum, no public goods that we take for granted every day.

Finally, there is the case of endorsing freedom and care for others, while putting your personal beliefs aside. This may be the most optimistic option, but it is also the highest chance of coming true since 59% of US Adults believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 70% of Americans support universal health care.

So What?

Given the arguments outlined above, it is easy to understand why the discussion on abortion rights hasn’t been settled. In the end, it is often an issue of conflicting beliefs and general misinformation. What is important for us, as an audience, is to look at information critically, and to form our opinions based on careful considerations of real facts, as well as on our weighing of what beliefs and values we want to hold dearest in our society.

Jessica van Horssen Prose THE BODY AS A PRISON - November 2018

The Ultimate Escape

Written by Jessica van Horssen

In a world full of options, infinite possibilities and instant access to information, it is easy to be hypnotized by the quest for success. Growing up with the idea that you can be whoever you want to be is reinforced by practices such as plastic surgery and using online avatars. Humans live further away from nature and each other, instead, spending most of their time online – all of which makes it easier for them to become estranged from their bodies. After all: a quick fix of dopamine can be effortlessly obtained by scrolling through your Facebook feed or WhatsApp texts.

Within the mind, the sky’s the limit, but our bodies can confront us with a completely different reality. When that reality isn’t perceived as positive by an individual, it’s more likely that he or she will become depressed and feel trapped by the situation.

Us millennials seem to have big dreams, ideals and a never-ending desire to grow. Alongside, many of us have insecurities and issues with FOMO, self-esteem and perfectionism. Looking over at the lives of our peers, the grass always seems to be greener on their side, especially on Facebook. The strive for perfection might seem honorable, but it can actually become lethal for some. Suicide has been on the rise among adolescents; in fact, since 2016 the suicide rate amongst young people in the Netherlands has almost doubled!

What’s Happening?

As a person who has experienced the suicide of a few close friends, it seems that loneliness and hopelessness are the biggest reasons that make people do such a thing. When your life doesn’t measure up to your expectations or the expectations you think society has of you, suicide seems like the ultimate escape from that situation.

I speak also from personal experience because I know what it feels like to have suicidal thoughts. It happened twice in my life that I didn’t see a reason to go on with my life, because in those moments, I felt like I had failed myself and my dreams. Looking back, it seems that those thoughts were fueled by sheer exhaustion and burnout, making me vulnerable to the kind of fatalistic thinking that can push a person over the edge.

The reality is that I was feeling trapped. Trapped by the limitations of my body and trapped by the dictatorship of a negative mind. Giving up on what I had set out to do felt like the ultimate failure. After all, if I’m unable to even strive for my dreams, what point is there to living?

I never saw it as an option, but after my best friend did it, suddenly it became a thing in my mind. Unfortunately, the mind brings up any possible coping mechanism there is when in distress. So when I went through the worst period in my life, my mind kept on screaming, “Suicide, suicide, suicide! Why don’t you end it all here and now? It might be the perfect escape from the hell you are living in.” Maybe being dead would give me the freedom I so longed for, but since we don’t know what happens after, I never wanted to take that risk. In the end, everything that gives me joy I experience through my body… and I love life way too much to actually take that step.

Photo by Kiwihug

It’s The Little Things

The reason why I don’t feel limited by my body is that it gives me the joy of experiencing physical touch, sex, cuddling, sports, dancing and a whole range of other experiences. When everything went to shit, it was my body that released me from my mind-made prison because there is nothing as powerful as a hug from my daughter, a kiss from a friend, and dancing to my favorite music. When looking at the reality of those things, they don’t require hard work.

There’s a reason people say that the best things in life are free. We often forget that in a society that’s focused on success, and thus can feel lonely because we are all on our own little islands of individualism. I want to urge anyone struggling with these kinds of thoughts to reach out to friends, family members or even the suicide hotline. And please remember: someone loves you, and maybe you will too again one day.

Kim Vrij Prose THE BODY AS A PRISON - November 2018

Blind Spot

Photo by Lucas Ludwig

Written by Kim Vrij

Living with a visual impairment is like living between two worlds.

The first world – the visual world – is where we want our eyes to be the main source of truth. I often hear people say “I’ve seen it with my own eyes” just to convince someone that something actually happened; there is also the more contemporary phrase: “Instagram or it didn’t happen.” If we didn’t see it, and mainly if others didn’t see it, it didn’t take place.

The second world is the world of the blind. Where hearing is one of the most important senses, I can hear the way someone feels, whether it’s angry, happy or sad, even when they don’t want to share these feelings. I can hear conversations of the couple sitting on the other side of the restaurant even when they think no one else can hear them.

I was born with a visual impairment. I can see about 20%, what that actually means seems difficult to understand, for myself, but also for people around me. “What is it that you can’t see?”, “Can you see what I look like?” or even “OMG now you can’t see how handsome I am!” are the usual responses to this topic. Maybe it’s easier to understand that I am 80% blind. Nonetheless, I do see what people look like and my job is more visual than one might expect. Some people are surprised that I have a job at all! I work in advertising, writing and managing communities on social platforms.

The Turn-Around

Having a lot of friends and starting in school at a public school were the best and worst things that ever happened to me. This seems to have shaped my early years and made me feel like I wasn’t different from anyone else, at least that’s what I told myself. It worked out perfectly, until I went to university and realized that I had been listening and (not looking) all these years.

Now I had to actually look at my books, screens and presentations. I didn’t see any of it, and, what’s even worse, it was difficult for me to travel there. In a city of a million bicycles, I rely on Uber. Even though I’d like to think I’d do the same if I would’ve had 100% vision, that’s a white lie, because when I told myself otherwise I felt like a light version of the person I could have been. I’d rather be a lazy brat in a taxi than visually handicapped and therefore immobile.

It took a lot of courage and caused some painful situations, but I asked for help. For the first time in my life, I accepted that I can’t be “normal” (Why would anyone want to be “normal” anyway?). I became friends with some inspiring visually impaired people (Who I am sure will listen to this article!) and was finally able to share what I couldn’t with anyone else. This shaped the “new” me, who accepted that I am living between two worlds, enjoying the best of both.

It took me a long time to get where I wanted to, regarding my career and accepting that I won’t be able to do everything I would like to. Who knows, it might even take me longer to make it to the next milestone, but since I decided I am not doing it to prove that I am like everyone else, things got a lot easier. I do everything my own way, and that is absolutely fine. In the world of seeing people I might be perceived as a prisoner behind my own eyes, but it doesn’t stop me from achieving my goals.

After all, in the world of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Max Muller THE BODY AS A PRISON - November 2018

The Window in the Prison

Written by Max Muller

The movie The Diving Bell and the Butterfly tells the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former French editor-in-chief of Elle fashion magazine. At the age of 43, he suffered a massive stroke. After having spent twenty days in a coma, he woke up to find himself a hostage of his own body. Although his mental faculties remained intact, he was almost entirely paralyzed. As a sufferer of locked-in syndrome, he could only move his eyelids. The near-complete paralysis was irreversible.

What fascinates me about people who become severely handicapped later in life is the level of mental strength they possess that enables them to carry on with their lives. I am especially impressed when patients manage to overcome this significant hurdle and achieve something great despite their corporeal limitations.

In this piece, I aim to come to an understanding of the psychological process that shaped Bauby’s perseverance.

The Misery of Immobility

After discovering his inhibited state in a remote hospital in Berck-sur-Mere, Bauby understandably became deeply distressed. When the doctors told him about his rare condition and the modern techniques that had been developed to extend his life, he was hardly impressed.

“This is life? Do you call this life?” a voice in his head exclaimed.

Henriette, his speech therapist, tried a new communication system with him. As she read out the letters in the order of the frequency of their use in French, he blinked when she reached the appropriate letter. To her horror, the first sentence Bauby constructed was, “Je veux mourir” (“I want to die”).

The misery was amplified when his physiotherapist Marie used a mirror during their speech lessons. As is revealed in the movie later on, Bauby used to be quite the womanizer and had good looks. Upon seeing his stiffened face, he was mortified.

Living with Regrets

Later, the source of Bauby’s sadness transferred from a preoccupation with his own disability to the regrets caused by his inability to redeem his past mistakes. He was especially saddened by his past mistreatment of his ex-girlfriend Celine, who was also the mother of his three children. Bauby left her and their offspring for another woman. When Celine and his children finally visited him in the hospital, he came to realize that, in his new state, he could not make up for the neglectful way he acted towards them in the past.

Something similar happened when a person called Pierre Roussin visited him. Bauby once gave up his seat on a flight to Hong Kong to him. By a twist of fate, the plane ended up being hijacked and Roussin was held hostage in Beirut for over four years. After his release, Bauby never contacted him. Meeting Roussin again brought back those memories, and guilt.

Photo by Jimmy Chan

Other Prisoners

Although Bauby never contacted Roussin, the man was compassionate enough to give Bauby encouragement in the hospital. Roussin compared his former, precarious situation to being in jail, or even in a tomb. Like Bauby, he too was often desperate, angry, and depressed. In order to remain sane, he recited the classes of grand cru wines he used to enjoy back in France. Roussin likens his hostage situation in the past with Bauby’s predicament in the present, and offers some wise words of advice: “Cling to your own humanity and you will survive.”

Roussin was not the only one to try revitalizing Bauby by comparison. Bauby’s father aimed to enhearten him also.

“We are both in the in the same boat,” he revealed to his son during a telephone call. “I’m trapped in this apartment, and cannot go up or down the stairs…we both have locked-in syndrome.”

Those words of encouragement from both Roussin and his father offer a way for Bauby to connect with others, even though they don’t suffer from the same affliction.

As the Dutch saying goes: “Shared sorrow is half sorrow.”

Bauby furthermore interprets his own condition as being stuck in a small diving bell (a device used to explore the depths of the sea). When imagery of this device is shown in the movie, it is always accompanied by the name “Noirtier de Villefort.”

Notiertier de Villefort was a character in Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 book “The Count of Monte Cristo” who also suffered from the condition we now call locked-in syndrome. Bauby had started to re-read the book a week before his stroke.

The Way Forward  

The fact that there were people close to him who were willing to spend their time and energy to improve Bauby’s state of mind gave him an important mental boost.

However, the efforts of other people alone were not sufficient to transform Bauby’s outlook on life. An internal leap of perspective was necessary, too. That shift occurred when Bauby recognized the facilities he had retained, and to what extent those capabilities could enrich his life. The change of perspective is marked by one of the observations the voice in his head narrates:

“I have decided not to pity myself any longer. Two parts of myself have not been paralyzed: my imagination and my memory. Imagination and memory are what I must use to escape my diving bell. I have realized I can imagine anything, anyone, anywhere.”

His insight – that he can harness his remaining facilities to take a peek from the window in his prison – is empowering to Bauby. He could imagine himself visiting the women he loves, make his childhood dreams come to life, and realize his ambitions as an adult.

It is probably no coincidence that these memories and fantasies usually heavily involve his sense of touch – after all, the syndrome also bars him from feeling anything with his skin. Thus, he imagines stroking his hands through his children’s hair, devouring oysters, and kissing beautiful women. These imaginary sensations allow Bauby to remember what it is like to be entangled in the midst of the world as a sensing body.

The decision not to pity himself any longer was materialized when he allowed his children to visit him. His inner voice reasoned, “Even a rough sketch, a shadow, a tiny fragment of a dad is still a dad.”

So on the one hand, he reaches out to his children by being physically there for them. On the other hand, he retains his connection to his family via his heightened sense of imagination and his memories.

Clinging to One’s Humanity

The power of the capabilities he had re-discovered and his past experiences as the editor-in-chief of Elle came in handy particularly when he was reminded of a contract he had signed with his publisher. The publisher sent a woman by the name of Claude Mendibil to transcribe his thoughs. The recording process culminated in the publication of the autobiography on which the movie is based.

Although this process was long and arduous, it reinvigorated Bauby. He was able to harness the full extent of his memory, imagination, and his writing capabilities. Furthermore, it allowed him to look deeply into himself and contemplate his past actions, something he perhaps did not have the time for, or neglected to do, when he was not yet paralyzed. Thus he was able to turn his syndrome around from what he initially perceived as a stumbling block into a strength. Finally, he dutifully followed Roussin’s advice. The writing process allowed him to re-conceive himself as a human being with all its flaws and strengths.

To conclude, the movie reveals the intricate connections between the state of the body and the state of the mind. Though, initially, it seemed obvious that it was Bauby’s body that was the main source of inhibition in his paralyzed state, it turned out that his mentality was a formidable stumbling block for the achievement of happiness and success as well. By overcoming this obstacle, he was able to write a now classic book and reconnect with those he held dear.

Jonas Guigonnat Prose THE BODY AS A PRISON - November 2018

The Failed Human’s Burden

Written by Jonas Guigonnat

What is this noise? Why is it torturing my ears like a constant beeping from inside my head? The light coming from outside is exacerbating the pain. My eyes are water drops ready to explode under the pressure of the air. My head, oh my head. It doesn’t hurt, it shreds my existence into pieces. Am I sick? Am I going crazy? What time is it? Two in the afternoon already. My day has not begun yet, but my whole being refuses to make something out of it.

The pain I woke up with is disappearing as if it didn’t happen, but my heart is still beating and the sweat hasn’t completely quit my forehead. I need something and it is already clear to my mind what it is. A cigaret, rolling paper, the little bag. Let’s try to forget the body for the rest of the day. As long as the narcotic flows through my mind, pain feels almost like an illusion. It’s this game I have to play with THC in my blood and a blown mind. What time is it by the way? Four already? That’s the problem with doing nothing to forget my own existence – it makes time fly.

Take a shower, then a joint, eat something and get out of this house where the ghosts of my failures keep hanging around. I need the city to feel alive, even if its grey depressing atmosphere may intoxicate my mind even more. And the ghosts are there too. Still, outside seems safer than inside. It is quite cold, but I don’t mind, I even enjoy it. Paris becomes almost respirable when it is freezing.

Walking makes my body exist, but the view of those concrete giants all around me is oppressing my mind. I need space, as much as I can have. I know where I need to go. Why do I always seem to avoid this place already? Oh yes, now I remember. That’s not far from where he lies. Gone for 16 years already but it feels like yesterday still. Am I an orphan if I lost only one parent? What an inappropriate thought. Too stoned already.

My head is burning again. My vision is tortured by the highway on the right, with its interminable flow of immobility, and the railway on the left, where painted letters on the walls are the only things giving a faint semblance of life. The beeping is teasing my ears again and the cold feels very real now. Melancholia reigns my mind, heaviness – my body. Regrets? As far as the eye can see. The nearer I get to the place, the stronger the feeling of emptiness. Not total emptiness. Only the present and the future feel empty. The past is where things have substance, where life means more than a monotonous repetition of nothingness.

But here I am, in the vain reality of the present, trying to endure the idea of a future I don’t trust. My stomach is burning. A growing feeling of weakness is seizing my legs. Now it is the time to smoke the joint I prepared at home. I need an escape route, an alternative for the cage of reality. The trees are appearing on the horizon. No green, but a hypnotic orange-yellow color that my eyes understand. Still walking in the civilized world, but I already belong to the loneliness of that fake piece of urban nature. Lonely I am anyway. Lonely I can only be, that’s the only way.

Almost there, just a few meters and the dream will begin. Not for long, just a few hours. Walking without any goal, just keep forgetting reality. Once tired, I’ll go back to the prison that my body always brings me back to. The place where nothing can be done, where tears cannot be shed anymore. Ghosts of lost pasts and of impossible futures are the worst watchmen you can imagine. They follow you almost everywhere. But wait, is the prison in the physical or in the abstract world? Which one of the body and the mind is the prison? Let’s hope it is not both, but I am afraid it is.