Dr. South Love or: How I Learned to Stop Listening and Love the Lady I Was

Emma Bolden

In the first frenzied firestorm of pro-Trump extremism, my liberal views made me a lightning rod in my workplace, and I got hit. I lost everything: the life and career I’d built so carefully, my sense of safety, my sense of hope. I had failed completely at being who I thought I should be – and that’s when my poems showed me who I really was and could be.

I’ve often said that my NEA fellowship saved my life, but I’m not sure if it’s clear that I mean that literally. I don’t know where I’d be today if not for that fellowship and for my parents, who gave me a home and supported me in more ways than I could ever even begin to articulate, much less repay. I don’t know if I would be today. I do know, definitively, that the project I’m working on now wouldn’t have come to be.

With the support of my parents and my fellowship, I found my way back to language again. Or else, language found its way back to me – I never quite know how it happens: a mystery that in itself explains why I love writing and why it’s so desperately important to me. All I know is that in my most desperate hour, in my parents’ house in the Birmingham exurbs, language and I found each other again – and through that, I finally found myself.

I started working on a memoir about my experience with women’s medicine and my hysterectomy, pulling the fragments of my medical history together in the hopes of creating a narrative that at least had some kind of cohesion. At the same time, in my poems, I wandered into a field beyond the cohesive narrative I’d built. I spoke to the selves I was and wanted to be, and soon I found myself speaking to the force I’d always sworn had absolutely no effect on me: the culture of the Deep South and the cult of Southern womanhood.

In poem after poem, I found myself squaring off with one particular phrase: “Be a lady.”

No matter how progressive your upbringing, it’s difficult to escape that maxim as a girl in the South. The phrase chased me through my childhood, leaving its mark on my smallest gesture – sitting with my knees apart (sit like a lady) or with my elbows on the dinner table (eat like a lady) or with gum in my mouth (if you’ve got to chew that, chew it like a lady). When I left Alabama at 18, I thought I’d left it, red dirt and white gloves and sheath dresses and all, behind.

Not even close.

As I wrote, I realized I’d tried desperately to be what the South said a woman should be — a good girl, a good wife, a good mother – even though I, at the same time, knew that wasn’t actually what I wanted to be. How far had I gone, without even acknowledging it, to be who the South said I should be?

Writing about my hysterectomy offered a window into the pervasive and insidious nature of Southern ideas about womanhood – and how they had entered and altered my own experience of my body. I was diagnosed with endometriosis and a whole host of “female problems” at thirteen; from then on, the doctor’s office became a kind of finishing school for me. My doctors said I’d need to get married and have children as soon as possible and then have a hysterectomy. I was told to live through excruciating pain and to make marriage and motherhood my primary focus. I wasn’t taught to ask myself if I wanted children. Instead, I was taught to accept anything — pills and procedures, shots that sent my teenage body into menopause, surgery after surgery – to buy myself a little time.

As a teenager, I noticed a difference between myself and my peers: I’d often felt emotionally drawn to boys and girls, but I’d never been sexually attracted to anyone, male or female. Since this involved my reproductive system, I mentioned it my doctors. They treated it as a medical problem, just one more thing that was wrong with me. I assumed they were right without questioning. So when doctors suggested invasive, humiliating, and barbaric treatments, I didn’t even recognize that I could say no — even when, in my late teens, a doctor performed internal manipulation and vaginal needling without my consent. I wanted to be a good patient. I wanted to be normal. I wanted to be cured. Only in my early thirties did a doctor mention asexuality. Only then did I realize that what my doctors had called a disease was instead an integral and healthy part of my identity.

I’m now pretty far into a project that’s (hopefully) growing into a collection of poems about my complicated relationship with the South and with myself, with who I am and who I thought I should be. “Finishing School” was one of the first poems I wrote. I started out wanting to write a poem based on a joke I’d often heard about women who attended finishing school, those bastions of Southern social graces where good girls were taught that the most important thing they can learn is to be good wives. “She went to finishing school,” the joke says, “and they finished her right off.” I struggled for months to get through a workable draft of a poem about this “she” – in fact, the piece only started to click “she” became an “I.” I realized I couldn’t remain an observer and write honestly: I was both the teller and the subject of the joke. I’d been a participant in this culture, but I refused to let it finish me right off. As I worked through the poem, I wrote myself into a place where I could speak firmly, authentically, and powerfully as myself, a woman who’d walked through the flames and kept walking, a woman who’ll keep walking however she should damn well please.

Read Emma Bolden’s piece Finishing School on our local spotlight.

Emma Bolden is the author of three full-length collections of poetry — House Is An Enigma (Southeast Missouri State University Press), medi(t)ations (Noctuary Press) and Maleficae (GenPop Books) – and four chapbooks. She received a 2017 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. A Barthelme Prize and Spoon River Poetry Review Editor’s Prize winner, her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry, The Best Small Fictions, and Poetry Daily as well as such journals as the Mississippi Review, The Rumpus, StoryQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, New Madrid, TriQuarterly, Conduit, the Indiana Review, Shenandoah, the Greensboro Review, Feminist Studies, Monkeybicycle, The Pinch, and Guernica. She currently serves as Associate Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Quarterly.