Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women's Pain

Norman, Abby

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Annotated by:
Grogan, Katie
  • Date of entry: Jul-10-2020


In her memoir Ask Me About My Uterus, science writer Abby Norman tells two intertwined stories: one about her fraught relationship with her own chronically ill body, and another about the fraught relationship between women and medicine. Norman is a sophomore at her dream college when a sudden, unrelenting abdominal pain sends her to the emergency room—and into a revolving door of medical appointments for years to come. Thus begins her diagnostic odyssey, protracted by an infuriating obstacle: not only must she endure excruciating pain, she must convince doctors that it’s real.

Norman is eventually diagnosed with endometriosis but has several frustrating clinical encounters along the way. Her symptoms are repeatedly minimized or disbelieved by doctors of various identities and specialties. One actually says the words that have long been inferred to Norman and so many women before her: “This is all in your head.” Finally receiving an accurate diagnosis provides some measure of clarity about Norman’s pain but little in the way of relief. She learns firsthand that medical knowledge about endometriosis is desperately lacking—a troubling realization given its prevalence. A commonly cited statistic suggests one in ten women have endometriosis but, as Norman notes, most studies have excluded marginalized communities, so the incidence is likely higher. Norman ultimately becomes an expert on the condition, setting her on a path to advocate for herself and others with endometriosis—and to write about it.  

The memoir is organized chronologically, beginning with the onset of Norman’s symptoms about seven years prior to the book’s publication, with occasional flashbacks that draw connections between her current crisis and her difficult childhood. She opens several chapters with descriptions of famous case studies and experiments, situating her own experience within a long and disturbing lineage of women dismissed, misdiagnosed, and mistreated by medical professionals.  


Norman’s memoir puts in stark relief the barriers in place when a young woman seeks help for an under-researched gynecological problem within a medical system still reckoning with its patriarchal norms and values. It is an unflinching look at systemic sexism in medicine, stretching from centuries-old theories of female hysteria and wandering wombs through the present day. Norman traces a through-line across medical history of misattributing women’s physical symptoms to psychogenic causes, leading doctors to discredit their complaints and women to normalize their pain and not speak up. 

Rejecting this precedent, Norman educates herself and is persistent in seeking care from providers who will listen. Hers is not a trite story of a patient’s triumph over medical skepticism, however. Norman writes candidly about years spent wresting with the thought that maybe she was, in fact, imagining the pain, willing it into being somehow or, worse, that she deserved it. She recounts numerous appointments in which she felt too intimated to push back against what she knew to be misdiagnoses or was chastised as “cute” for being more versed in the endometriosis literature than her physicians. Though she is correct about her condition, it is not exactly a victory for Norman. As she reiterates several times throughout the book, “I had never wanted to be right, only to be well.”  

The details of Norman’s medical mystery are enthralling, but in the more mundane portions, she offers something vital: the voice of a young woman writing frankly about menstruation and trying to discern the fine line between pathology and normality. In exposing how little is known about endometriosis, she also reveals how little is known about gynecological health in general and the lack of medical consensus around basic questions: What is a normal period? Should menstruation be painful? Is there a biological need to menstruate outside of reproduction? 

Norman’s memoir seamlessly weaves together personal and historical narratives, but it is also a call to action for medicine to examine closely its flawed paradigms for (mis)understanding women’s pain and to allocate resources to this vital work. A growing body of research attests to the gender disparity in pain treatment within today’s healthcare system. Studies show women are less likely than men to receive analgesia for reported pain, wait longer than men to receive it, and experience more delays in diagnosis than men. Though Norman writes about medical conditions that primarily afflict women, this is not a book exclusively for or about women, as these issues need to be of concern to everyone. Her memoir contains critical messages for academic, medical, and lay audiences.


Bold Type Books

Place Published

New York



Page Count