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.
The life of a book — what is it? A book always has many many lives beyond the one we hope for most: the one in which someone, in some quiet corner of an information-overloaded life, takes it into their lap and actually reads it. But the life of a book is also tantamount to the friendships made possible in the book's creation. These aren't visible or palpable in the reading of a book. They are exceedingly fleeting and at the same time indelible. I don't think anyone has written a book about the friendships made by the books we now consider "classics," and it might be hard historically to access such friendships outside of a paper trail of letters.
In the course of writing Swallow, I became friends with an 83-year-old woman named Margaret Derryberry who had coincidentally called the Mütter Museum in search of the hatpin that she had inhaled when she was 8 years old in the 1930s. I interviewed Margaret by telephone, and we struck up a wonderfully affectionate email correspondence. In the midst of working on the book — in fact in the very week when my book on awkwardness was set to appear in the world — I received a breast cancer diagnosis. I didn't tell Margaret right away, and by the time I was ready and able to tell her — about one month into my treatment regime — I learned from her daughter that she had passed away. I was kind of glad that she didn't have to depart this world with the burden of my sad news, but I felt pretty sorry for myself that she was no longer in my life at such a difficult time. Of course at that time, I didn't know if I would get to write Swallow, let alone finish it. I devote a chapter of the book to Margaret's story.
Margaret Derryberry at about the age she was when she inhaled a hat pin and was treated in one of Chevalier Jackson's clinics.
Writing the book, I met the descendants of Chevalier Jackson — and this special order of encounter also deserves so much more reflection, especially where biography is concerned, that I know I will write about it someday. These people let me into their living room and shared decades of family home movies with me. I'd hoped to meet someone who might have worked with Jackson or who had known him personally, and this became a reality when I met the Maloney family — Arlene (widow of Walter H. Maloney who had been a close colleague of Chevalier Jackson), her doctor-son, Hugh, and daughter-in-law, Carole. The Maloney family has also met my mother and my partner. Clearly there's something more than a common interest that conjoins us. I feel like what's fueled the warmth between us all has everything to do simply with asking Arlene questions and watching entire worlds well up in her that had lain dormant for decades.
Rediscovering memories of Chevalier Jackson's homestead in Schwenkesville with Arlene Maloney and her son, Dr. Hugh Maloney in Philadelphia.
Through a google alert set to Chevalier Jackson, I met the Bay Area artist, Lisa Wood. I couldn't believe it when I learned that Lisa had just completed a series of gorgeous and evocative "plates" — beautiful, carefully composed wonders, really — based on the very same collection of swallowed objects that I had been writing a book about. Her series, called "The Swallowing Plates," are assemblages made of tintype photographs from the period of Jackson's early career, each featuring an imagined foreign body and accompanying tale.
One of Lisa Wood's "Swallowing Plates": "Case No. 5, Rabbit Bone, John Cody Babbage.
Lisa and I have found more than companionship in the meeting of our work, though it's true we enjoy knowing that we "get" each other's work, and the chance to make presentations in tandem has been phenomenal. There's more to our meeting, though; there's an on-going inspiring dialogue. And I never thought my career would bring me into dialogue with a Swordswallower.
Swordswallower Dan Meyer at the Bruce Museum, Greenwich, CT.
Dan Meyer, head of Swordswallowers Association International, let me interpret his work, and in the process has taught me things long after the book's presumed completion. Most recently, at a performance at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, CT, he introduced me to the incomparable story of swordswallower Edith Clifford, whose actual sword he'd added to his own bouquet in the hope of commingling his DNA with hers; he's also made me want to track down the story of the famous Delmo Fritz — the swordswallower who appears in Freaks: I didn't know till now that Fritz may have died while demonstrating a bronchoscopy for someone who may have been a colleague of Chevalier Jackson.
Several months ago my father passed away. This would seem to be a non sequitor. But on the afternoon of the evening he died, I was rediscovering the original drawers that Chevalier Jackson stowed his objects in with the M&uum;tter Museum's curator, Anna Dhody; the original set of drawers and even hundreds of foreign bodies had been temporarily lost to attic storage. Attending my father's body with my brothers later the same day, I wanted to know my father's hands again, mostly, I wanted to kiss my father's hands, to know them again as I remembered them: before Parkinson's had contorted them and frozen them. In death, they were still warm and not impossible to move.
In the afternoon, I'd been rediscovering Chevalier Jackson's original cabinet, and in the evening I found myself with my brothers, going through my father's very sparse personal effects. These included a small box in the form of fake book — it opened not to pages but to my father's unimpressive jewelry, except for a pair of psychedelic cuff links, which I asked to keep. I also asked to keep the plastic clock that my father watched in the nursing home — whenever I visited him, he was sitting facing the clock, watching it. I found that I wanted to remember his 1964 Ford Falcon in his silvery blue coffin, and that I wanted to notice that the flowers he cultivated when he lived — a lily called Speciosa rubrum — graced his funeral when he died. I felt stooped over in the weeks following my father's death not because I was becoming my memory of him with Parkinson's, but because I wanted to remember how it felt at the end of his ordeal; we'd had to kneel to hear him, we'd had to get very close to his mouth.
The experience of the museum and the experience of my father's death is something that I want to understand and intend to write about someday, but at the time, I wrote about it in a letter to another new friend I'd made through the writing of my book, the book designer Laura Lindgren. You'd think this would be a story I'd only tell someone I'd known for a very long time or knew very well, but I wrote to Laura about it because I knew she'd understand it.
I don't know how to be chatty, intimate, or personable on a blog, though I'm told by people that's the nature of the genre. I haven't learned the conventions of blogging. But I'm sure friendships are made through blogs. That must be true. I wonder, though, if they're the same as the friendships made through books.
Mary Cappello being given a tour of Chevalier Jackson's homestead, "Old Sunrise Mills," Schwenkseville, PA, by historian and Assistant Administrator, Pennypacker Mills, Carl Klase.
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Mary Cappello's literary nonfiction includes Awkward, a Los Angeles Times bestseller, and Called Back, a critical memoir on cancer. A recipient of the Bechtel Prize for Educating the Imagination from Teachers and Writers Collaborative and the Lange-Taylor Prize from Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies, she is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Rhode Island. She lives in Providence.
Books mentioned in this post
Mary Cappello is the author of Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration, and the Curious Doctor Who Extracted Them