31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 24: “Skin, Just” by Christine Miscione

May 24, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Auxiliary Skins

Auxiliary_Skins_MiscioneIf there is a towering figure in the (admittedly proscribed) subgenre of Canadian body horror, that figure would undoubtedly be David Cronenberg. In films such as Shivers, Rabid, and The Fly, Cronenberg has examined – often in gruesome detail – what transpires when our renegade bodies turn on us. In both Shivers and Rabid (and, not coincidentally, also in Cronenberg’s forthcoming novel, Consumed), disease is associated with sexuality; in The Fly, this is not absent, but the disease that strikes Seth Brundle is also explicitly linked to something else: cancer.

It is not difficult to locate Cronenberg’s influence in Christine Miscione’s brief, harrowing tale, “Skin, Just.” Though it is possible to push this comparison too far: in Cronenberg’s work, the plagues that afflict his characters are undeniably real, however exaggerated and unlikely they may be. In Miscione’s story, by contrast, the trouble that the protagonist suffers is, quite literally, all in her head.

Clara Williamson, the story’s protagonist, is convinced that a mole on her thigh is cancerous. She is so convinced of this inevitability that she takes a household knife and gouges the mole out of her leg, then carries it to her local hospital, where she demands it be biopsied.

That the mole turns out to be benign should come as no surprise. What Clara suffers, clearly, is a crippling hypochondria that has rendered her virtually powerless in its thrall.

A quick check of the Mayo Clinic’s description of hypochondria symptoms reads like a pitch-perfect description of Clara. “Having a long-term intense fear or anxiety about having a serious disease or health condition”? Check. “Worrying that minor symptoms or bodily sensations mean you have a serious illness”? Check. “Obsessively doing health research”? Check. “Frequently checking your body for problems, such as lumps or sores”? Check.

The opening paragraph of Miscione’s story testifies to the extent of Clara’s obsession, describing as it does the cancerous moles she sees all around her, in every scenario and situation:

Gum on the sidewalk, and all she can see are moles misshaped, moles deadly. Layers of tar covering potholes are moles, too, tar on every street, melanoma in every city. And polka-dot bathing suits. And specks on shower tiles. Knots on floorboards, bruises on banana skins, rot in apples, soy sauce drips left over on tables and the arms of strangers, their tank-topped backs, their miniskirted legs where skin shines through: moleless, moleful, abnormal, normal, happy.

Clara imagines starting a band called The Happy Moles with her friend Tessa, only this would be ironic because Tessa has no moles, we are told; she is “clear as a cup of water.”

The obsession with the possibility that her calf mole is cancerous is a manifestation of Clara’s mental illness, but it is also, not unimportantly, connected with the idea of flawlessness, the ideal of physical beauty promulgated in Western society, especially concerning women. The mole on her thigh, even if benign, is a blemish, a defect, a blot or imperfection. How to deal with this? Cut it out.

Of course, Clara’s ad hoc surgery results in infection and what the hospital medical records describe as “post-traumatic stress.” The doctors’ medical assessments are interspersed with Clara’s anxious, delirious narration, providing the ironic distance that allows us to see Clara’s mental illness for what it is. The doctors offer Clara sedatives and advise her to seek counselling, but Clara remains single-minded in her determination that she is suffering a terminal illness, and that her illness is physical, not mental.

When the biopsy confirms the “tumour” is benign, Clara is disbelieving – another key indicator of hypochondria – and reacts violently: “Patient seems upset at results,” the medical record reads. “Patient bangs hand on forehead continuously.” An earlier report notes that Clara “self-describes as anxious and psychotic,” an indication that there is some awareness of the true nature of her problem, though this awareness is insufficient to cut through the terror she feels as a result of obsessively Googling melanoma in the wee hours of the morning.

Nor does the story allow Clara any kind of epiphanic moment at the close. Although she recognizes that she has “ruined” her body “for nothing” – another example of the pressure on women to attain and preserve an impossible degree of physical perfection – the final moments of the story find her fixated on the divot in her leg left over from her gouging out the mole. She begins to see crevasses and indentations everywhere she looks, and retreats to her bed in a fever of worry and upset. “And so it goes,” Miscione writes. And so it goes.