Nonfiction Books on Women in Pain

Women and men more often than not do not receive the same level of care and treatment when they go to a doctor for assistance. Women are statistically more likely to be silenced or ignored; their aches and pains are often chalked up to menstrual ailments, overreactions, or just plain attention-seeking behavior. This is not always the case, of course, but it happens often enough to warrant plenty of writing on the subject. Here are several works of nonfiction that focus on the subject of women’s struggles to receive proper health treatment.

Photo of the cover of the book Not Weakness: Navigating the Culture of Chronic Pain by Francesca Grossman

Not Weakness: Navigating the Culture of Chronic Pain // Francesca Grossman*

Summary: After thyroid cancer, Crohn’s disease, and a slew of other autoimmune conditions ransacked her body in her twenties and thirties, Francesca was left feeling completely alone in her chronic pain. Constant, relentless, often indescribable, and always exhausting, it affected her whole life―intimacy, motherhood, friendship, work, and mental health. Yet it was also fairly invisible―and because of that, Francesca felt entirely alone in the centrifuge of her own pain. But after twenty-plus years of living this way, isolated and depressed, she started to wonder: if she lived in pain, others must too―so why couldn’t she name one person in her community who suffered like she did?

Review: A slim work of just over 150 pages, this is a great introduction to the genre of women writing on pain. Grossman not only recounts her unique experience with pain, she interviews 21 women about their experiences with chronic pain. The book is arranged into chapters based on themes such as addiction, shame, intimacy, and silencing. Each chapter is composed of a combination of anecdotes from Grossman’s life, excerpts from several interviewees’ experiences, and discussions and quotes from essays and books written by experts on the topic. Due to the slimness of the book, many of the chapters are rather introductory and do not go into great detail; however, this could be seen as a weakness or an advantage. I choose to see it as an advantage, as the book is a perfect gateway into entering the discussion on women’s experiences with pain and health concerns.

PUBLICATION DEETS: She Writes Press, Apr. 18, 2023, 165 pages

Photo of the cover of the book Ten Days in a Mad-House (the graphic novel)

Ten Days in a Mad-House (the graphic novel adaptation based on the work of Nellie Bly) // Brad Ricca and Courtney Sieh

Summary: Beautifully adapted and rendered through piercing illustrations by acclaimed creators Brad Ricca and Courtney Sieh, Nellie Bly’s complete, true-to-life 19th-century investigation of Blackwell Asylum captures a groundbreaking moment in history and reveals a haunting and timely glimpse at the starting point for conversations on mental health.

Review: Journalist Nellie Bly risked her own life and health to go undercover at the Local Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island in 1887. Bly took this major risk for several reasons–the two most prominent of which were to impress a potential boss so that she could get a full-time journalism job, and she hoped to reveal the dark underbelly of the cruelties happening in the asylum. Through the course of the graphic novel, Bly experiences many unjust cruelties, not only from the doctors, but largely from the on-duty nurses who seem to derive joy from torturing the inmates. Bly, who was perfectly sane upon her admittance, finds herself losing sanity in the hellish environment. Sadly, most of the comments about this book detail how the practice of asylums came to an end disturbingly recently and how terrifyingly close we seem to be to falling back into the practice of ferreting “difficult” women away from the public.

PUBLICATION DEETS: Gallery 13, Apr. 19, 2022, 160 pages

Photo of the cover of the book In the Body of the World by Eve Ensler

In the Body of the World // Eve Ensler

Summary: Playwright, author, and activist Eve Ensler has devoted her life to the female body—how to talk about it, how to protect and value it. Yet she spent much of her life disassociated from her own body—a disconnection brought on by her father’s sexual abuse and her mother’s remoteness. “Because I did not, could not inhabit my body or the Earth,” she writes, “I could not feel or know their pain.”

Review: Anyone who is even slightly educated in feminism is familiar with Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues, and in this memoir, Ensler does not hold back. In almost painful honest, she describes her mental and physical health experiences, which most prominently include her cancer diagnosis. It is a searing and vulnerable memoir about the toll health complications can have on relationships. I should warn readers, though, that this one is not for the extreme empaths. It’s an emotional roller coaster, and I often had to put the book down just so I could compress and sit with everything I was reading about for a while.

PUBLICATION DEETS: Metropolitan Books, Apr. 28, 2013, 240 pages

Photo of the cover of the book Doing Harm by Maya Dusenbery

Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick // Maya Dusenbery

Summary: In the hard-hitting expose, Maya Dusenbery brings together scientific and sociological research, interviews with experts within and outside the medical establishment, and personal stories from regular women to provide the first comprehensive, accessible look at how sexism in medicine harms women today. In addition to offering a clear-eyed explanation of the root causes of this insidious and entrenched bias and laying out its effects, she suggests concrete steps we can take to cure it.

Review: I read this book in graduate school partially as research for my thesis, but also for a Health and Communication class I took. Dusenbery’s book remains the most comprehensive book I’ve found on the experiences of women in medicine. Dusenbery offers an immensely detailed and meticulously researched death sentence for the way the medical field has treated women, both historically and in the 21st century. From the history of the development of early medicine to the traditional experiments and drug testing practices to the way doctors-in-training are taught, sexism runs rampant in the medical field. Dusenbery details how women were excluded from most drug tests because the lack of research on women’s hormones led to scientists believing women’s hormones were too unpredictable and would adversely skew the results of any study they participated in. And that is hardly scratching the surface of the unbelievable history of the centuries-long exclusion of women from medicine.

PUBLICATION DEETS: HarperOne, Mar. 6, 2018, 400 pages

Photo of the cover of the book The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

The Empathy Exams // Leslie Jamison

Summary: Beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose, Leslie Jamison’s visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How should we care about each other? How can we feel another’s pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other? By confronting pain—real and imagined, her own and others’—Jamison uncovers a personal and cultural urgency to feel. She draws from her own experiences of illness and bodily injury to engage in an exploration that extends far beyond her life, spanning wide-ranging territory—from poverty tourism to phantom diseases, street violence to reality television, illness to incarceration—in its search for a kind of sight shaped by humility and grace.

Review: While not entirely focused on women and health, Jamison’s book offers a unique, empathy-centered look at the ways in which empathy translates to how people interact with each other. Jamison often uses her own personal health events as a starting point for discussion, and she makes some very insightful comments on the ways in with empathy (or the lack of empathy) impact interactions in health-care scenarios. Jamison once worked as a medical actor to “perform” various symptoms for medical students, which presented her with the opportunity to gauge how her behavior shaped the interactions and the subsequent diagnoses. I must admit that it took me a while to get through this book. It covers a lot of territory, and it is not linear. Jamison often switches between topics and points in her life from chapter to chapter, which left me feeling a little discombobulated on occasion. While I enjoyed the book overall, and I highly recommend it, I do remember that I struggled to complete it due to its density. This may be a book to read slowly over the course of several months.

PUBLCATION DEETS: Graywolf Press, Apr. 1, 2014, 230 pages

Photo of the cover of the book The Beauty in Breaking by Michele Harper

The Beauty in Breaking // Michele Harper

Summary: The Beauty in Breaking is the poignant true story of Harper’s journey toward self-healing. Each of the patients Harper writes about taught her something important about recuperation and recovery. How to let go of fear even when the future is murky. How to tell the truth when it’s simpler to overlook it. How to understand that compassion isn’t the same as justice. As she shines a light on the systemic disenfranchisement of the patients she treats as they struggle to maintain their health and dignity, Harper comes to understand the importance of allowing ourselves to make peace with the past as we draw support from the present. In this hopeful, moving, and beautiful book, she passes along the precious, necessary lessons that she has learned as a daughter, a woman, and a physician.

Review: In case you’re worried that the medical profession is getting a bad rap for its (mis)treatment of women, here is a beautiful memoir by a woman working in the field. Harper is an African American emergency room physician, and she’s seen a lot of shocking things over the course of her career. In her memoir, Harper does not sensationalize working in an ER. This is not a medical drama. Rather, Harper offers a heartfelt look into the daily life of a medical professional–the ups, the downs, the long hours, the burnout, and the joy. One scene from the book that stuck in my memory is when an African American man was brought in by policemen for a drug test. They suspected him of some crime, and wanted proof of a crime to be able to arrest him. A positive test for drug use would do the trick. The man is visibly upset, and while Harper is watching him engage with an impatient nurse who is insisting he cooperate, Harper quietly glides over and informs the man that he is not required by law to submit the drug test. He can simply leave, so he does. Harper’s quiet yet assertive way of informing this man of his rights is only one of the small acts of kindness she details in her book. It’s a moving read, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

PUBLICATION DEETS: Riverhead Books, July 7, 2020, 304 pages

That’s it for this installment. I’m enjoying curating these themed book recommendations, so I hope it becomes a regular series on the blog. If you have any recommendations for further reading, please comment them below! I’m always looking for more books on this topic to dive into.

*Note that I received an advanced reader’s copy of Grossman’s novel in exchange for an honest review.

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