The Fictioning Horror Sale

From the Authors


Original Essays

Powell's Q&A

Tech Q&A

Kids' Q&A



Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers.


Author Archive: "Mary Cappello"

Rose and Rolf Diamant: A First Person Account

There were many things I had considered meditating on as my guest blog post come to a close, but the receipt of a link to a diary written by a mother who lost her child to a foreign body accident in 1917 had the power to displace all thought of possible musings . Instead, it seemed pertinent to use the occasion of the blog to share what had been just shared with me. The extraordinary first-person account was written by Rose Diamant, the great aunt of Dr. Michael Rothschild, who happens to be the President of the ABEA (The American Broncho-Esophagological Association), an organization founded by Chevalier Jackson. Dr Rothschild was recently in touch with me and took me to this story. But of course, it is more than a story, and the mother-author's decision to record in such detail the impressions of the final days of her two-year old son's life stands on its own as only a precious document can, as a trace of the raw and the real. The boy had accidentally inhaled a piece of walnut shell that eventually proved fatal, ...

Writing as a Form of Friendship: Finding Friends in Unlikely Places

I make a bold pronouncement in Swallow: everyone has a momentous swallowing story that tells them who they are . And in some ways that's been playing itself out in the amazing and intimate stories people have been sharing with me after I give a reading — most recently, of a boy, now a man, who put a bean up his nose when he was a child. He was living with his parents in a part of the world where witch doctors were called upon when other doctors weren't available, and this was one such time. The witch doctor pushed all manner of tools up his nose — rusty tools — and the boy began to bleed. The rust on the tools also made him sneeze — and thus eject the bean. Needless to say, he never quite got over the incident. Another person told the tale of having swallowed a coin when she was a girl. She'd been sick in bed, her father had given her the quarter to help her feel better, and told her to take good care of the quarter. She put it in her mouth. The doctor her mother took her to told her to wait a few days to see if she would pass it. To that end, her mother investigated her stools using a broomstick (this part of the story was rather mysterious). Another person told me about keeping his tonsils in a jar after they'd been removed, and showing them to classmates for years, until eventually they shriveled up. In a particularly intimate conversation with a stranger at a conference I attended last week, while walking from one hotel venue to another he told me about his adult phobia of swallowing glass, and how he'd accidentally swallowed a bottle of aspirin when he was a child, thinking they were candy, and was traumatized by having had to have his stomach pumped.

I know that some people would consider the sharing of such tales "TMI." The fact that we have an acronym for the feeling of learning too much about our fellow man might tell us something about the current moment that we're living in, complete with new conventions of disclosure: so much on-line chatting and sharing of things we never made public before, and yet people don't really seem any less fundamentally lonely. I'm the sort of person whom strangers confide in — on airplanes in particular, but pretty much anywhere. When I was a very young woman, I was such a good listener that I existed more as a repository for other people's egos than an expresser of my own. This is not a "true confession," and I don't think the people who share their swallowing tales with me are confessing. I think they are compelled, and I think they are remembering, and memories shared sometimes have the effect of feeling real.

I'm still a keen listener, but not as passive a listener as I was when just a girl. I'm pretty good, but I'm not a genius. I'll never forget the first time I met the Russian writer and philosopher, Mikhail Epstein: he listened like no other person I had ever met — he listened, with such felicity and excitement, to all three of the people I was meeting him with, and was able to show that he was hearing what was being said. I decided this was the mark of genius and that he was a genius. Of course there is a kind of listening that writers do — that could lead to an essay all to itself — because I sometimes wonder if I'm a better listener to the stories of people whom I do not know than to the stories of those whom I claim most to love.

When my breast cancer book came out, it was quite something to hear the stories of other women when I gave readings. It was amazingly intense, and I probably suffered a bit in the process from what Miriam Engelberg calls "compassion fatigue." On the other hand, I realized that, especially that, radiation's waiting rooms are places where narrative is produced, and I listened keenly to the stories of my cancer colleagues in those rooms, as though together we were making something lasting out of the fact of our shared, blunt encounter with mortality. Now with Swallow, I don't think that instant friendships are formed out of what the book incites — that would be absurd and probably unwanted; but I think that, as in those cancer rooms, there's an admission that becomes possible: the possibility to say something to each other on subjects that, though most close to us, we don't know how to share. It's interesting to me that these tales implicate the body in particular, but I don't know what to make of that at the moment.

Unsolved Mysteries

With the appearance of Amanda Schaffer's beautiful essay on Swallow in the New York Times yesterday, "Swallowed Objects That Went Straight into History," and in the aftermath of two wonderful readings that I did last week on the West Coast (one at the alternate universe that is the magnificent Velaslavasay Panorama, and another at the wonderfully accommodating Book Soup, both in LA), as well as an interview for CBC/Vancouver, I find myself — you probably think I'm going to say "exhausted," but, no — I find myself stimulated by questions that people are asking me about Jackson and his collection.

I was going to blog today about the way in which new, unexpected friendships are formed when one writes biographically, but it seemed more timely just this minute to share some of the questions — unsolved mysteries, really — that people are asking and to pose just a glimmer of a response.

Three questions in particular have emerged in the past few days: Why do people swallow nonnutritive things? What is the strangest item in Chevalier Jackson's collection? And was Chevalier Jackson autistic or could he be understood as being on an autism/Asperger's spectrum?

I think that I answer all three of these questions in my book, and from a variety of angles, though I don't raise a question of whether Jackson was autistic explicitly. Still, I'll try to offer sketchily provocative answers here, just to give a sense of how I think about these things.

Personally, I'm less interested in answers than in discovering new ways to think about what I thought I knew. For me, that's what's exciting about poetic investigation, or scientific investigation at its best. Trying to think about why people swallow nonnutritive things requires entry into a range of realms of experience, culture, and psychology. In my research, for example, I discovered that a number of women in the 1920s U.S. ingested hardware in great number (I discuss three very particular cases of this in my book — cases in which hundreds of items were found in the same person's stomach). I ask that we think about these cases in a socio-cultural way: I mean, is there anything people do that isn't somehow or other culturally instigated? That isn't in some way suggested to them by the very milieu in which they live? The time and place? And could we think, then, of all human behavior — even that which we find most strange, reprehensible, or incomprehensible, as being drawn from a cultural repertoire? With questions like these in mind, I try to understand swallowing acts like those of the women in the 1920s in terms of their historical context. (I draw on Ian Hacking's work in thinking about this — his work on what he calls "transient mental illness," the idea that some mental illnesses (so-called) appear at particular times and places in the history of humankind and then disappear.) The hardware swallowers, it seems to me, were responding to a demand of the age in which they lived — the age of Taylorism, the machine age, the age in which Charlie Chaplin is pictured swallowing nuts and bolts in Modern Times, an age in which people were required to be more machine-like. But of course no single ground, basis, or motivation does justice to people's ingestion of nonnutritive things, and I don't mean to explain away the problem with one attributable source.

Why do people voluntarily swallow objects? For this, we'd also have to consider a person's individual psychic disposition, their relationship to pleasure and distress in particular. And we'd have to put "volition" (or "voluntarily") in quotation marks — especially if we believe in something like a human unconscious. But it doesn't end there because the human mouth (unlike other bodily orifices) is the site of knowledge, language, breath, appetite, desire, and aggression, to name a few. Swallowing "things" can serve the purpose of self-soothing; as a stopgap to speaking; as a testing of the limits of one's capaciousness. Not reducible to hunger in the literal sense, it can represent a form of emotional hunger. Typically, the act is associated with an array of mental disorders, so-called, but cannot be easily pinned to ONE disorder, and this is partly why such swallowing feats confound psychologists.

Biography or Biographeme?

How do you find a form for the questions that compel you as a writer? What form does a project dictate? How do you coax a subject away from or toward a genre?

These questions are some of my New Year's irresolutions. Aside from the fact that George W. Bush ruined the word "resolve" for me forever, I generally prefer to dwell in (I almost wrote "possibility" but that would be Emily Dickinson, not me), to dwell in what can't be solved but can only be pursued, not one way or another, but in many ways, unpredictably. I don't really claim to live this way, but this is how I write, and I do believe that writing, that literature, as altered state and alternative world, can transform the "real," the life, eventually.

What is it that you are writing or have written?

How often are you asked that question?

To answer the question, I turn to two brief sentences (of a sort) from Gertrude Stein. They appear in her wonderfully long (at least 50 pages last time I checked) prose poem, "Patriarchal Poetry":

"What is it?

Aim less."

She repeats the question ...

Cabinet of Curiosities: Repository of Interest

"I admit to being moved by a peanut kernel" and "eventually I made a pilgrimage to a coat," are odd-sounding sentences on their own. For me, they are points of interest on the far edges of a map that began with an un-assuming visit to Philadelphia's Mütter Museum in 2006.

Among the numerous pathological specimens housed in the museum, the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body collection stopped me in my tracks; I guess you could say it literally fascinated me (fascinate having origins in arrest and paralysis and the casting of spells). I wasn't alone in this — the beguiling drawers filled with thousands of items that people had swallowed or inhaled, items neatly framed, stowed, organized by type, and meticulously cataloged by the doctor who extracted them, is for many visitors to the museum among its most memorable displays; it may even be the museum's most popular attraction. The collection no doubt exerts a singular charge for each person — I'm convinced that viewing the foreign body collection is a visceral experience, sensuous at its core , and yet it is made manifest by presumably inanimate objects. Some people even opt to return to peruse it again and again, and eventually make art from it or write to it.

My own initial interest in Chevalier Jackson's collection of "foreign bodies" was an aesthetic one. Simply, I felt there was poetry happening in these drawers, in much the same way a poet like Talvikki Ansel (My Shining Archipelago) finds poetry inside of the periodic table of elements. Jackson's collection initially interested me as a cosmology of things — what a strange universe the maker of the collection had constructed, in which types and orders and clusters, combinations, constellations, and cross-references were built — but built out of what? Objects that people had swallowed or inhaled.

There was something ineffable about each object, and jewel-like, both because and in spite of the fact that each bespoke the body from which it hailed, a life nearly cut off, most of the time saved because of Jackson, an uncanny lodgment that re-made both the thing and the person who had ingested it.

I thought maybe an experimental essay could do justice to the objects' strange aura — from buttons, nails, and screws, to jackstones and toy binoculars, pencil nibs, coins, a padlock, more than one crucifix, and a Perfect Attendance pin. I'm a reader, and I saw from the exhibit that Jackson had also left a great deal of writing in his wake, including an autobiography that was a best seller in 1938 (written when the physician was 73 years old). Reading the autobiography was difficult. It was finely written — that wasn't the problem — but the first fifty pages were rife with tales of a barely survivable traumatic childhood. There was cause for an essay-poem as a response to the collection — that had been clear — but Jackson's autobiography showed me that there was an entire book waiting to be written from inside his cabinet of curiosities, that the collection was haunted by his own complex psychology and by the lives of his patients running like silent, invisible movies, the scenarios of accident and desire, the vectors of volition and struggle, of poverty and hunger (why do you think people put things in their mouths?) that each foreign body told. Nonfiction was called for because the stories buried in Jackson's papers and in the thousands of case studies in places like the National Library of Medicine collection were often stranger than anything I could possibly make up.

  • back to top
Follow us on...

Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at