THE SUBTITLE FOR Anne Elizabeth Moore’s new collection of essays is aptly random: Body Horror is an odd, and oddly bracing admixture of first-person illness narrative, hard-left cultural critique, and crackerjack reporting by the award-winning author of Unmarketable and founding editor of Best American Comics. (The jokes of the subtitle are a little harder to find, interspersed like Easter eggs in a particularly high-minded videogame.)
The metaphor that centers the collection — the (female) body under assault by medical arrogance, patriarchal politics, the capitalist machine — is captured in a comically macabre way by the book’s cover art, which combines freak-show graphics with a punk-zine sensibility. And it is that extra edge, that bizarro brio, that makes this collection resonate long after the political harangue has faded.
Not that there’s anything wrong with a passionately argued harangue on behalf of women’s bodies right about now. There’s a reason that The Handmaid’s Tale has joined 1984 as required rereading for women like me in the Age of Trump. A sign at the Women’s March in January spoke for those of my vintage: “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit.” But here we are.
So I appreciate the rigorous intellectual reach that Moore brings to essays like “Cultural Imperative,” in which she examines expectations about child-bearing — i.e., that a “well-educated, upper-middle-class white woman with no evident physical malfunction” like our author “owes it to society to reproduce” — through the lens of intellectual property policy, of all things. Moore has given a lot of thought to IP law; here, she calls out its gendered nature, its privileging of traditionally male output from sculpture to machinery, its embodiment of the idea of protection only for those who produce. She concludes, “In IP terms, women who express no desire to birth children are unprotectable,” even “valueless.”
In several other essays, she extends her cult-crit provocateur chops: “Women” explores a lineage of rape-revenge splatter films from 1978’s I Spit on Your Grave to 2011’s The Woman, speculating about the “violence of self-protection” as a response to “the logic of rape and misogyny.” “Vagina Dentata,” features a discussion of the 2003 horror cult film Angst (at its core, “another film about a crazy chick and her bloodthirsty beaver,” Moore concedes) against the backdrop of Naomi Wolf’s 2012 book Vagina and a general outbreak of what Moore calls “vagsplaining” — reductive discourse by elite women about “the way vaginas must work.” In these and other forays into high-low culture, Moore manages to be both pitilessly logical and utterly surprising. Her students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she teaches Visual and Critical Studies, must love hearing her riff.
As do I, and I love her flights of creative divergence, which are captured on what I can only call the oddities shelf of this collection. There’s her deadly serious reporting on the Cambodian garment workers’ movement in “Massacre on Veng Sreng Street” and her straight-ahead look at fashion models as a new proletariat in “Model Employee.” But there’s also a little side-track into patent medicine and memory in “Fake Snake Oil”; a surprise history lesson in “On Leaving the Birthplace of Standard Time”; a detour into gardening for “The Metaphysics of Compost”; and my personal favorite, an unexpectedly joyous romp called “The Shameful Legacy (and Secret Promise) of the Sanitary Napkin Disposal Bag.” (I mean it on that last one: Moore makes you want to stand up and cheer for 1920s menstruation products innovator Lillian Gilbreth, all the more because she was unsung during her lifetime.) In these pieces, Moore’s sensibility reminds me — in the best possible way — of a radical feminist, Jeanne Marie Laskas, whose 2012 book Hidden America likewise radiated curiosity and compassion.
But the body enduring the greatest horror in Moore’s collection is her own: under siege from a series of auto-immune disorders, misdiagnosed and dismissed by the medical profession, left almost for dead but then painstakingly crawling back into the land of the living. Moore writes furiously in “When My Wounds Stopped Healing,” “Superbugs Are Coming for You,” “The Queer Crip Narrative,” and “Fucking Cancer” because she is furious. At age 16, suffering from crippling diarrhea and fever, Moore had to convince doctors that she had a protozoa-borne disease previously only found in dogs (ultimately, a third of the human population of Milwaukee contracted the same bug). She’s had a hyperactive thyroid that presaged her first auto-immune flare-up, Graves’ disease, and since then has accreted half a dozen more that affect her body like something out of science fiction: “In an autoimmune system, the bodily response that protects healthy people from disease goes into overdrive and begins treating everything it comes across the way it would a virus or an infection,” Moore writes. “It attacks its own host, the body, in the joints, maybe, or the muscles, or brain tissue […] As the diagnoses kept coming, the variety of medical anomaly that I am began to take shape: I am ‘an autoimmune person,’ my own worst enemy.”
Moore’s rage has several targets. One will be familiar to anyone who has suffered a debilitating illness, especially an invisible one, in a culture built around able self-sufficiency and rendered awkward by its opposite. “Most [people] will avoid you,” she writes in “A Few Things I Have Learned About Illness in America.” “They do not want to deal with mortality, yours or their own, or what strikes them as worse than death: disability.” Elsewhere she writes, “[t]he difficulties I experience physically navigating the world pale in comparison to those I face making others understand that I now require particular consideration regarding food, travel, and endurance activities like walking more than a block.”
Moore is angry, too, at a medical-industrial complex. “The world of medicine […] tends not to believe women when they say they are in pain, which in the realm of invisible illness […] is often the only symptom on offer,” she notes in “Consumpcyon.” Later, in “Fucking Cancer,” she is appalled to hear about a new, deliriously expensive cancer-treatment drug that essentially triggers an autoimmune reaction to fight back cancer cells. “Even if the immune-stimulating drugs work on the intended target,” Moore argues, “they may provoke a system of autoimmunity that will go on to attack whatever was lying beneath, near, or beside it: your stomach lining, maybe, or your blood. Your liver. Autoimmunity doesn’t care.” She should know.
Which makes her ultimate argument in Body Horror at least somewhat persuasive — that, and the fact that she can enlist the ever-prescient Margaret Atwood to her cause. Moore begins her essay “Consumpcyon” with a revisiting of Atwood’s 1969 novel, The Edible Woman, in which a fully normalized young woman named Marian is suddenly rendered unable to eat. Moore goes deep in her interpretation of Atwood’s message:
What triggers Marian’s illness is her glimpse into the elaborate system she feeds into and from, a multi-use machine with a myriad of moving parts […] her clothing, relationships, and even reproductive goals (she is annoyed to discover) selected for her in advance. It makes Marian sick. Atwood doesn’t name what her protagonist glimpses, but we now know it’s called capitalism.
Moore then pulls that thread into her present tense, into the female-dominated world of autoimmune disorders. “[The] rise in autoimmune disorders […] are primarily occurring in nations with high rates of processed food consumption,” she reports, “which seem to indicate that environmental, not genetic, factors are the primary reason for the uptick in these ailments.” She winds up “Consumpcyon” with Body Horror’s knockout blow: “[M]illions of women around the world know that their bodies are failing not through any mental or emotional flaw, but because the system under which they live is causing damage […] Their bodies, too, are rejecting capitalism.”
By audaciously linking her disparate Body Horrors to a larger construct — more complex even than her own immune system, more menacing than mere patriarchy — Moore allows her essays, each plenty feisty its own right, to punch significantly above their individual weight. Whether one is ready in real life to attribute everything from Crohn’s disease to Pacific Time to the machinations of the market, Moore’s arguments land with force enough to make even the marginally politicized reader think.
Mickey Revenaugh is an essayist whose work appears in publications ranging from Chautauqua to Catapult to Lunch Ticket, which named her Finalist for the 2017 Diana Woods Memorial Award in Creative Nonfiction.