In 2018, a group of protestors demanded the removal of a statue in New York City of J. Marion Sims, known as the “father of gynecology.” Sims was given this title for inventing a surgery in the mid-1800s to treat vesico-vaginal fistulas, holes between someone’s vagina and bladder or intestines (or both) that are usually caused by difficult childbirth. He developed his technique through horrific experiments performed on three enslaved women named Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey, without either anesthesia or meaningful consent. Anarcha endured at least 30 experiments, but her condition never improved, mainly because Sims’ approach was ineffective—and frequently fatal. Say Anarcha: A Young Woman, a Devious Surgeon, and the Harrowing Birth of Modern Women’s Health is Guggenheim fellow J.C. Hallman’s dual biography of Sims and Anarcha.
Sims, a shameless self-promoter, provided Hallman with an ample record to work with. His memoirs, articles and newspaper notices (written primarily by Sims himself) make it clear that he was dangerously, violently misogynist and racist. Cloaked by his medical degree and bolstered by a system that transformed human beings into disposable property, Sims was able to perform acts of brutality on Lucy, Betsey and Anarcha with impunity. And they were not his only victims: After perfecting his “cure,” Sims and his adherents maimed or killed women of all classes, from enslaved people to countesses.
Hallman’s greater challenge was reconstructing Anarcha’s life. The structure of chattel slavery ensured that the few references to Anarcha in the historical record merely reflected her status as property, leaving Hallman with the dilemma of how to tell the true story of a woman whom history had almost entirely erased. Historian Tiya Miles confronted a similar issue in All That She Carried, a brilliant reconstruction of the life of another enslaved woman and her descendants. Like Miles, Hallman uses the technique of “creative fabulation”—consulting various oral and written histories from Anarcha’s lifetime to creatively fill in the gaps within an archive distorted by racism and misogyny. The result is a nuanced and sympathetic speculative portrait of a woman who would otherwise remain anonymous.
Double biographies are fairly unusual and tend to be about people who were linked together in the minds of their contemporaries. But Anarcha was not associated with Sims in the public mind because Sims took great pains to ensure that she would not be—not because of any shame he felt about exploiting an enslaved woman but because the recurrence of her fistulas belied Sims’s narrative. Hallman’s determination to bring Anarcha out of obscurity restores her humanity and allows readers to reexamine the corrupt foundations of women’s health care.