Constance Studer

Body Language

Chapter 1: Holy Socks

I was four when my father went into Toledo State Hospital in 1947 and never came home again to live. I have faint memories of his large hands pushing hair out of my eyes, of watching him preach in front of a small church while an organ played Amazing Grace. He told my sister and me stories about Holy Socks, who was sometimes funny as Father hopped around like a rabbit twitching his nose, swishing his tail. Sometimes Holy Socks was a scary monster who gobbled up any socks left on the floor. The story was never the same two nights in a row. Sitting on the church steps, the world was all dandelions and bluets, smooth green knolls bristling with lilacs and thistle.

Spirit has many meanings. It can mean breath. And then there’s “spirited away,” a phrase that can mean someone was abducted or perhaps passed on. My father, a Methodist minister, preached about the Holy Spirit. But most importantly, spirit means having the courage to persevere. My sense of the sacred as a child was connected to memories of my father: accompanying him on pastoral calls, hearing him preach every Sunday. As a preacher’s kid, I spent a lot of energy wriggling out from under kisses of maudlin matrons to whom religion was a foundation garment that squeezed out all breath, poked them at every step.

In 1963, I was twenty-one and a third-year student nurse at Toledo Hospital School of Nursing. Part of that training was a three-month psychiatric affiliation at Toledo State Hospital, the institution in which my father had been incarcerated since his lobotomy.

“Would you get this chart for me, please?” I asked handing the elderly woman a slip of paper.

“Why do you want this chart?” she asked.

“I need to do a nursing care study on this patient,” I mumbled, avoiding her eyes. My palms were sweaty. “I’m a student nurse.”

As she shuffled off to find the chart, I leaned against the wall and took a deep breath. I had no idea what punishment would befall me if my nursing instructors discovered that I’d read an unauthorized chart. I needed to find out why my father had spent more than half of his life in Toledo State Hospital. The loss of my father was a cave of silence: the silence of secrets too painful to tell. The silence of doctor’s orders hidden away on dusty charts, long ago destroyed. The silence of the cultural taboo attached to mental illness. The silence of a life lost in the wilderness of back wards where no one visited. The silence of the medical profession’s arrogance at playing god with other people’s psyches. Cutting brain tissue in order to still an argumentative voice, to make a life conform, to cut a life down to size. The old woman trudged back to the counter with two thick manilla folders. “You can’t take these out of this room,” she said. “Bring them back to me when you’re through.”

My father was a Methodist minister and the Bible preached that he must be silent to hear God’s guidance. But when he was silent, he was accused of acting strangely. I had so many questions: Was madness the domain of doctors or theologians? Was it caused by physical pathology or spiritual depravity? Was it a disturbance of body chemistry, or the result of cultural influences? Had my father spent so much of his life behind locked doors because he loved God so mightily that his circuits blew, madness as a form of prayer?

Many years later I found a newspaper clipping, brittle with age. The editor of the paper in the small Ohio town where my parents began their ministry had written an article about my parents. “Adam and Eve at Home,” was the title. He described watching “Eve,” my mother, Evelyn, playing the piano, while “Adam,” my father, Lucien Adams, sang a hymn. How interesting that the editor would equate my parents with the world’s first lovers, the prototype for all those who came after, authors of that ancient story of sin and sex and sorrow and redemption. “Adam” means “blood,” “earth,” “the first gardener.” “Eve” means “life” or “living.” In the beginning, out of nothing, God’s spirit brought light, then divided light from darkness. He created Adam, breathing in life and soul. Adam adored Eve, just as my father adored my mother, flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone. “You’ll bear children in pain,” God said to Eve. “You’ll toil in the fields,” God said to Adam. They made choices and were forced to live with the consequences. God placed a spinning sword at the mouth of the garden to keep sinners out. Adam and Eve spent the rest of their lives trying to get back where they started.

My father was a romantic, down on his knees in love with my mother, a believer in the true sweet ache of it. Blood rush. Grand holiday of reason. Cheers from the awakened soul. Love, the only glimpse of heaven any of us will ever get. When my mother walked down the aisle of the Ruggles Methodist Church one warm summer evening, the young interim pastor was besotted. One look at her and Father decided brotherly love wasn’t the most important kind. He was tall and so thin that his body weaved in and out as he preached. The oak pulpit glowed under its patina of varnish. A purple linen cloth hung down the front. Above the altar hung a simple oak cross. Angels and apostles danced in the stained-glass windows. Father was a transcendental philosopher, a dreamer, a writer who tried to make poetry out of sermons. My only legacy from him was a battered notebook in which he scribbled poems and Bible verses and notes for sermons. Faith is the door we all must knock on, but not everyone gains admittance. The word “bliss” comes from the same word as “wound.” Bliss, that condition known to infants, psychotics, saints and lovers.

(excerpt from Chapter One, Body Language)

Selected Works


Creative nonfiction-Essays
Body Language: First of All Do No Harm
Body Language is a wake-up call to American medical professionals to rethink the Hippocratic dictum: "First of all, do no harm." Studer uses her family's stories to illustrate larger ethical dilemmas in which modern medicine is embroiled. Medical treatments are given with the presumption they will help, but her father's prefrontal lobotomy caused irreversible brain damage. Studer's Hepatitis B immunization caused systemic lupus. There are studies showing a link between the autism epidemic and the use of thimerosol as a preservative in vaccine preparation.
Poetry
Prayer To A Purple God
"These are sharp-edged, dark poems that speak a dangerous truth about the health of humans in these hard times of our earth. They reflect the changed landscape, the changed life of the body of woman, the body of God, the body of this land with its newly hazardous terrain. Yet there is light here, water, air, prairie grasses, and heart. These are poems to pay attention to, about what it means when health slips like a ring from earth's finger."
--Linda Hogan, author of Solar Storms, Dwellings, A Spiritual History of the Living World and The Book of Medicines.

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