What I Don’t Tell My Students About “The Husband Stitch”
The first story in Carmen Maria Machado’s "Her Body and Other Parties" brings up big questions about who we believe and why
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When I teach Carmen Maria Machado’s story “The Husband Stitch,” the first in her collection Her Body and Other Parties, to my fiction workshops, it’s unlike teaching any other story. For one thing, the men in class don’t speak. I’m not sure if, like me, they don’t know what to say, something I admit before we begin. “I don’t quite know how to discuss this story,” I say. “I’m really having us read it because I love it.” Or maybe they feel like they shouldn’t because it is, among other things, a story about being a woman. The conversation limps along, uncharacteristically weighted with all the things the students are thinking and not saying. Often, one woman admits she cried when she read it, and when I nod and ask why, she says she doesn’t know. Always, a student says that she sent it to all of her friends.
I have that impulse, too, to share it, which is why I have my classes read it. There is a truth in the tales that I recognize viscerally but have never been taught. Machado’s narrator tells the story of meeting the young man she knew she would marry, their mutually desirous marriage, the birth and raising of their son, and an inevitable betrayal by her husband whom she loves. “He is not a bad man, and that, I realize suddenly, is the root of my hurt,” the narrator says. “He is not a bad man at all. To describe him as evil or wicked or corrupted would be a deep disservice to him. And yet — ” The title refers to the extra stitch sometimes given to a woman after the area between her vagina and anus is either torn or cut during childbirth. The purpose of the extra stitch is to make the vagina tighter than it was before childbirth in order to increase the husband’s pleasure during sex.
I was first introduced to the husband stitch in 2014, when a friend in medical school told me about a birth her classmate observed. After the baby was delivered, the doctor said to the woman’s husband, “Don’t worry, I’ll sew her up nice and tight for you,” and the two men laughed while the woman lay between them, covered in her own and her baby’s blood and feces. The story terrified me, the laughter in particular, signaling some understanding of wrongdoing, some sheepishness in doing it anyway. The helplessness of the woman, her body being altered without her consent by two people she has to trust: her partner, her doctor. The details of the third-hand account imprinted into my memory so vividly that the memory of the story feels now almost like my own memory. Later that year, Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” was published, and sometime after that, I read it, and the details of Machado’s scene were so similar, down to the laughter, down to the words “don’t worry” (though in Machado’s story they’re directed at the woman), that I’m not sure now what I remember and what I read.
Reliable information about, or even an official definition of, the husband stitch is conspicuously missing from the internet. No entry in Wikipedia, nothing in WebMD. Instead there are pages and pages of message board entries and forum discussions on pregnancy websites, and a pretty good definition on Urban Dictionary. In James Baldwin’s 1979 New York Times piece, “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” he writes, “People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate.” How can a practice like the husband stitch be warned against if there’s no official discussion of it, no record of it, no language around it, nothing to point at, to teach? Every time a woman received a husband stitch, is it in her medical file? Does it say, “2nd degree perineal laceration repaired + husband stitch”? Or might the record leave off the extra stitch, whether it happened or not? I asked three male friends in medical residencies in different areas around the country if they’d heard of the husband stitch and only one had, but not from medical school; he knew it from Machado’s story. And yet it happens, based on the chatter on message boards, women’s chatter, which I have been conditioned to approach with skepticism, a category of information I might dismiss as an “old wives’ tale” (a term with its own troubling connotations). It happens even now.
But this is not an essay about the husband stitch. It’s an essay about believing and being believed.
My mother has always had a flexible relationship with facts. She is constantly solving mysteries, including (often incorrectly) the mystery of what you’re about to say next, or the mystery of someone’s motivations. Sometimes in recalling these instances, she’ll substitute in her solutions for the truth, her prediction for what I actually said. “I thought you said you weren’t taking the baby to Portugal because of Zika,” she’ll say, and I am exhausted by the prospect of unraveling all of the inaccuracies. “No, that’s what you said,” I say, like a child. “I said I am taking the baby to Portugal and there’s no Zika in Portugal and the reason people worry about Zika in the first place is if you’re pregnant and neither I nor the baby are pregnant.” But of course she’s not confused, though there are times when she is; in this case she’s knowingly using incorrect facts to tell me her emotional truth, that she doesn’t want me to take the baby to Portugal because, like me, she’s afraid of everything. The truth that she is afraid of everything is as real as the truth that there’s no risk of Zika in Portugal. Both are true. By working backwards from her emotional truth I can understand why her facts are wrong.
Machado’s narrator tells a story from her own youth, when she’s certain she has seen and felt toes among the potatoes at the grocery store. Her mother thinks she’s misunderstood the word. Potatoes, not toes, she tells her, but the narrator remembers the detail of the way the toe felt when she touched it. Her father lays out the logical case against the existence of toes among the potatoes, a clean, five-point position: she knew the grocer, why would he sell toes, where would he get them, what would be gained from selling them, and finally, why did no one see them but her? She reflects on this, “As a grown woman, I would have said to my father that there are true things in this world observed only by a single set of eyes. As a girl, I consented to his account of the story, and laughed when he scooped me from the chair to kiss me and send me on my way.” Machado is teaching us that truth and logic only occasionally overlap. When you start poking at the idea of an absolute truth, a truth unfiltered through someone’s perception, it can fall apart entirely.
“Of all the stories I know about mothers, this is the most real,” Machado’s narrator begins, and goes on to tell a story of a mother and daughter traveling to Paris. The mother falls ill and the doctor sends the daughter to get medicine, a task which takes so long, a meandering cab ride, the doctor’s wife making pills out of powder, that when the daughter returns to the hotel she finds her mother gone, the walls of their room a different color, a hotel clerk who doesn’t remember them. Then the narrator says there are many endings to this story, one in which the daughter persists, stakes out the hotel and starts an affair with a laundryman in order to finally discover the truth: that her mother died from a highly contagious disease and in order to prevent widespread panic, the doctor, cab driver, his wife, and the hotel employees conspired to erase any trace of the mother and daughter’s existence there. Another ending to the story is that the daughter lives the rest of her life believing she’s crazy, “that she invented her mother and her life with her mother in her own diseased mind. The daughter stumbles from hotel to hotel, confused and grieving, though for whom she cannot say.” I would tell you the moral, the narrator says, but I think you already know.
We are taught to value simple, elegant truths. In science, philosophy, theology, and politics, we apply Occam’s razor, the idea that between competing hypotheses, the simplest one is the right one. That the daughter is crazy is a much simpler explanation than that a whole cast of characters conspired to hide her mother’s death and erase their existence, simpler than the introduction of a contagious disease, simpler than the construction and remodeling done to the room. And yet —
In class, I don’t say to my students, “Do you feel it, too? Or can you imagine it? The perils of living in a world made by a different gender? The justified and unjustified mistrust? The near-constant experience of being disbelieved, of learning to question your own sanity? How much more it hurts to be let down by ‘one of the good ones?’” Instead I say, “What effect do the horror tales have, placed associatively where they are in the story? What effect do the stage directions have? What would be lost without them? Do you see how they’re braided together? These are tools you can use in your own stories.”
One night we had a thrilling summer storm, bright and crashing, wind and rain blowing into the house from every direction. I wanted to open all the doors and windows wider and run around, but it was better for the house, the wood, to close them tight. We hadn’t been in the house long, and it was the first time in this house we’d had to close all the windows. In the morning I smelled gas, strong, unmistakable. “I smell gas,” I said to my husband. “I don’t smell it,” he said. He had a friend come over. “Why are you having a friend come over,” I asked, “when it doesn’t matter if he can smell it or not, and none of us can fix it?” His friend didn’t smell it, either. I called the gas company. The gas company employee didn’t smell it, either. He waved his reader around and it blasted off in three places, substantial leaks behind the stove and in the basement. “Always trust a woman’s nose,” the gas company employee said.
Yes, I thought, believe us.
Then, No, I thought, I’m not a fucking witch. Believe anyone who smells gas. If someone smells gas, believe them.
But what if this story had a different ending? What if his reader hadn’t picked anything up? What if there had been no gas? I was so relieved there was gas, so afraid I was crazy. If I smell gas and there is no gas, am I different than if I smell gas and there is? Am I crazy, then, and does my value come from not being crazy? Does my value come from being right? If there is no gas, am I not right? Does it mean I didn’t smell gas or does my experience of smelling gas still remain?
Why are we disbelieved? Why am I skeptical of women’s chatter? Why does my husband think I don’t smell gas? Later, in the same piece, Baldwin writes, “There was a moment, in time, and in this place, when my brother, or my mother, or my father, or my sister, had to convey to me, for example, the danger in which I was standing from the white man standing just behind me, and to convey this with a speed, and in a language, that the white man could not possibly understand, and that, indeed, he cannot understand, until today. He cannot afford to understand it. This understanding would reveal to him too much about himself, and smash that mirror before which he has been frozen for so long.” Maybe this is why we don’t believe women. If their experience is true, we can’t stand to see our role in it.
Once, after class, a student approached me urgently. “That happened to my mother,” she said. “I didn’t want to say it in class, but they did that to her. The husband stitch.” Her eyes were wet, unblinking. “It’s real,” she said.
Yes, I said. It’s real.