Body Language, a beautifully crafted and expansive memoir by retired nurse Constance Studer, spans a range of issues within the narrative of the author's life: a childhood marred by a medical procedure--a hasty frontal lobotomy that left her father incarcerated in a mental institute-- and, in later years, by her own illness, one caused by the Hepatitis B vaccine.  These two events are the bookends that frame Body Language, a memoir that examines family life, nursing, medicine, medical ethics, personal survival and illness in language that is poetic and compelling.  Studer, a writer as well as a nurse, intersperses her own story--which is novel-like in its intensity--with literary allusions, research material and knowledge culled from her years as a nurse in Intensive Care.  In her memoir, she writes not only with the authority of one who has been on both sides of the bed, as professional caregiver and as suffering patient, but also as a family member who has witnessed how unwise and unchallenged medical decisions might affect generations. 

What I especially admire about this memoir is that it is not simply a "telling about."  Instead Studer brings us into the action of the narrative, for example giving us imagery and dialogue as her father prepares for the surgery that he doesn't know will deprive him of memory and sense ("Holy Socks" p. 21).  She also intertwines many narrative strands, giving us the fullness of her family history and her professional adventures, so that when we reach the narrative of her own illness we have a sense of a life, a full life, that has been forever altered.


In her introduction, Studer says, "Writing and nursing go together like a long marriage where each partner takes turns crying and consoling, arguing and reconciling.  The marriage lasts because both partners know they've been heard and understood and accepted in spite of all their imperfections" (p. 6-7).  Her memoir succeeds because it does the same.  Using her own nursing experience as backdrop, it decries medical errors and yet understands how medicine works, how mistakes might be made; it consoles those who practice medicine and nursing, understanding the dangers and pressures of healthcare as well as the rewards; it consoles those who are patients, especially those whose illnesses have been mysterious, long-undiagnosed, or denied.

This memoir is also brave.  As Studer points out, it is difficult for medical practitioners to disagree with the status quo, with the accepted treatments of the time, especially when under pressure from the press and pharmaceutical companies (p 169).  Studer presents extensive data and includes a generous Bibliography to support her argument that medicine is often too quick to adopt new practices and often too slow in revealing problems.  She goes beyond the statistics to show readers the real lives that hide behind the too often under reported numbers.

This memoir also transcends the physical.  Studer has found, through her own illness, the place where the body intersects with the spirit.  "Body language is a foreign language slowly translated, often painfully understood.  Just to dance, to be, arms up, legs stretching out is a blessing.  Constantly testing, teasing the boundaries with a turn of the head, a touch.  Breath follows breath.  Nothing else matters" (Introduction, p. 8).

This lovely memoir will be of interest to anyone interested in medical ethics, in the debate over the link between vaccinations and illness, in the survival of the body in the face of long-term suffering, and in the spirit, the meaning of life that goes beyond the flesh.




Due to be published July, 2009.


Purdue University Press

Place Published

West Lafayette, IN