Reviewed by Heather Harlen
My period was late, so I asked for a pregnancy test at my annual exam. My family was in crisis and my husband and I were not ready for children, so I had my fingers crossed it was just stress messing with my body. In a fit of anxiety, I blurted to the nurse, “I hope it’s negative.” That nurse passed my urine test to another nurse, saying, with raised eyebrows, “She hopes it’s negative.” I was stunned and humiliated. If this was one of the premiere women’s health offices in the area, what was it like for women elsewhere? Us Girls: My Life Without a Uterus (Big Table Publishing Company, August 2018) by Rachael J. Hughes helps answer this question in unflinching directness.
When Hughes is 17 and still hasn’t gotten her period, she goes to a doctor who tells her she doesn’t have a uterus. This begins a journey from doctor to doctor to find out what’s going on. Most of the medical professionals treat her with indifference at best and as a side-show act at worst. Hughes is also dealing with an absent father, a troubled brother, as well as romance and friendship issues. As if her regular life isn’t challenging enough, her body is betraying her, too.
There are two saving graces in Hughes’ life: music and her mother. If Us Girls had a Spotify playlist, it would be an homage to the 90’s, full of grunge and alternative staples such as Natalie Merchant, Mother Love Bone, Nine Inch Nails, and, most importantly, Pearl Jam. Their music, as well as the lead singer’s throbbing influence, is woven throughout the book. Hughes’ mother is the loving refrain, supporting her through it all.
The most compelling parts of the book deal with trying to determine the exact nature of Hughes’ condition. Hughes does this with emotion and power. The author is told various things, even that she has a “disease,” as if having reproductive issues is equal to leprosy. When Hughes is in stirrups, having a band of doctors and interns poking and prodding her until she bleeds, I held my breath and winced. When she finally meets a doctor who treats her with dignity and respect, I sighed and smiled. My only quibble is I wish Hughes would have spent less time on her teenage years and more time on her adult life. It’s helpful to know where she came from, and I want wisdom about adulting when your body doesn’t perform in the ways society expects it to.
In the end, I wasn’t pregnant, and I never went back to that doctors’ office. I planned to write a letter to the office manager explaining why I had left, but I never sent it. I just wanted to move on from the humiliation. This is why I have such respect for Hughes: she had the ovaries to write about the most intimate details of her complicated life and reminds us, in the words of Eddie Vedder, “As much as you can learn from your history, you have to move forward.”