Your body the suitcase of your soul

‘Your body as proof of moral virtue’ Kate Manne on the moralism of fat phobia.

Until she reached her nineties, my mother was proud of her limited reliance on medications even in old age. Other older people, she said, took bucket loads of pills but she could get away with only the anti-arthritis and bone thinning varieties. Otherwise, even her heart was sound, until it wasn’t. 

Many of her children – those who did not die young – did not require medication or hospitalisation much either. To my mother this was a virtue. Neither she nor our father considered hospitalisation or medical treatment of value unless you were on death’s door, with broken bones, or in the case of an elder brother and younger sister, once both delirious with rheumatic fever. 

They were ferried to hospital by ambulance and disappeared in the old army huts of the Fairfield infectious diseases hospital. We scarcely saw them until months later they returned. 

A healthy body was good and virtuous. Even the fact my father smoked three packs of Craven A filter tipped and drank bottles of Saint Agnes Brandy weekly should have laid him low. It did not until he reached his sixties. With emphysema and heart disease. A strong body, my mother reminded us. But his was not virtuous for all his potency. 

An Edinburgh graveyard. Something of its austerity reminds me of our mortality.

A curse, because I wanted him dead. Until he was dead. Since then there were times I wanted him back so I could talk about the things I never could say to him and listen to any account he might have of his own behaviour. 

Your body, a temple to house the blessed sacrament on Sundays. Your body the suitcase of the soul. Your body the receptacle of the life you live on earth and although a healthy body in my mother’s mind signified a healthy mind, others might do to your body as they willed, so long as it was kept secret from the rest of the world, especially when you were a child.

The day I told my mother about the man who accosted me in a nearby park, she went silent and then muttered something about how good it was we got away. 

In my memory there was another mother, whose son was my brother’s friend, who lived in another street and heard the story of the man who tried to grab me from behind as I stood high on the swing seat opposite my sister. How I leapt out of reach, called to my sister and we ran off up the hill and away. 

‘I’d have called the police,’ this other woman said. My mother did not. Besides she knew well enough, the police would do little, if anything. Like the so-called ‘domestics’ to which they were called late at night when my father was drunk and threatening. Until he saw them and sobered up in a heartbeat.  

If my mother had bruises as evidence to show my father had been abusive then they could charge him, but her report of his threatening words and terrorizing her and her children was not enough to warrant sanctions. 

Presumably the man in the park continued to harass children whenever he had a chance. It goes on today though with fewer blind eyes.

‘Boys will be boys’, as the saying goes, and men will be men. There’s no equivalent ‘girls will be girls’ and in her book The #MeToo effect Leigh Gilmore talks of the ‘She said/He said,’ arguments that have long kept women’s protests of rape and abuse silent.

It remains so today. Witness the Bruce Lehrmann trail, the extent to which the woman who accused him of raping her in the middle of the night in Parliament House has been vilified to protect and preserve the possibility of his innocence. 

In no other situation when a person makes complaints against another person does the complainant cop such vicious interrogation. You might be scrutinised to verify your validity in making your complaint, but beyond that it rarely goes to the point of character assassination, as so often happens in cases of alleged sexual abuse.

It’s no surprise when you consider our tendency to associate the body with moral virtue and to locate its value in whether it holds female of male characteristics. 

In some cultures, the birth of a girl is decried. Sons are signs of good fortune while girls are a by-product of the call for reproduction. Without them we might not be able to produce new people, but they are useful for that purpose or as I learned as a small child when my mother trotted out her homilies on the ways of the world.

A rant indeed and enough said on the moralism surrounding the nature of our bodies. Health a sign of moral virtue. Ill health a sign of decadence or all-round inferiority. A throw back to Hitler’s day and the ideal Arian man, a throwback to eugenics where disabled people were considered best screened out of the genetic pool. To the days of Adam and Eve when God made man and poor old woman copped his left-over rib. When God in the bible was so frighteningly heteronormative as decreed by his apostles or whoever else it was writes stories that the world is still reeling from the idea it might not be polarised. There might well be variations within the mix. 

No wonder in her dying days my mother turned away from us. She did not want anyone to look upon her decaying body. It did not fit her life’s view of her body as a sign of inner moral goodness. She who did not need medication until she was in her nineties. 

She wanted to live to one hundred but in the end even her body let her down, and took her five years earlier.