Radical Psychology
Volume Eight, Issue 1

Sylvie: A reflection on embodiments and transformations

Hilde M. Zitzelsberger [*]


In October 2006, the birth of conjoined girls, Tatiana and Krista Hogan, in British Columbia, Canada made national headlines, generating not only medical interest but also public curiosity and controversy. A number of commentators criticized the mother’s decision not to abort the fetuses on compassionate grounds when routine prenatal tests revealed their joined heads in vitro. Further media headlines illustrated that a key concern is whether the twins can and will be medically separated (Armstrong, 2007a, 2007b; Drake, 2007; Hume, 2006; Jones, 2007; Smith, 2006; Wente, 2006). The attention surrounding their births suggests both fascination and fear about anomalous bodies, such as conjoined twins, and raises social and ethical questions about their right to life. Hence, the birth of these girls raises questions about the kind of bodies and lives that are possible and permissible.

To address this issue, I explore the ambiguous status of anomalous bodies through Canadian author Barbara Gowdy’s (1996) fictional short story titled Sylvie, in We So Seldom Look on Love. This book is a collection of stories about lives of those beyond and on the margins of normality. Sylvie is a story about two females, Sylvie and Sue, whose bodies are conjoined. Sue is a partial body attached to Sylvie at the torso. This representation of conjoinment may foster a deeper understanding of the experience of different forms of being and elucidate the issues that differently embodied selves pose for society (Bolton, 2005). In my reading of Sylvie, I focus on how Sylvie’s conjoined body generates fascination and revulsion, resists categorization, and her eventual, perhaps inevitable, transformation into a singular body through intervening biomedical interventions.

Why inquiry into embodiments and transformations through a story about conjoined twins?  Some philosophers and body theorists, such as Elizabeth Grosz (1996) have reflected on conjoined twins “as or at the limit” (p.5). This is because such bodies radically challenge the western binary systems upon which ideas of normal and abnormal bodies and selves are constituted. Anomalous bodies, such as conjoined twins, transgress ideals of the normative body as singular, closed, and self-sufficient and the self as separate, unified, and autonomous. In doing so, they disrupt modern conventional relationships of body and mind, body and body, and self and other that mark thresholds of what constitutes a proper and intelligible human subject. Because of her conjoinment, Sylvie is conceived not only as extraordinarily different but also as monstrous. Margrit Shildrick (2002) depicts the monstrous as “those bodies that in their gross failure to approximate corporeal norms are radically excluded” (p.2). Due to their irreducible differences, she claims that monstrous bodies are uncontainable to, yet embedded, unacknowledged figures in western logos that both accomplish and destabilize taken-for-granted norms of the body and embodiment. As such, conjoined twins expose the inherent vulnerability of all embodied selves.

Engaging with notions of monstrous embodiment, the possibilities in the spaces between categories of being, between normal and abnormal, natural and unnatural, and self and other that are portrayed in Barbara Gowdy’s (1996) account are explored. I first provide a brief synopsis of Sylvie, followed by an analysis in which additional detail about the story is included. In conclusion, I pose more general questions that this story raises about embodiments and transformations. I find the story of Sylvie particularly poignant as it raises consideration of the possibilities of being that are lost in interventions that aim to recuperate anomalous bodies to a normative state.


Sylvie, Barbara Gowdy (1996) tells us, has multiple lives, referring to her conjoined body. Of Sue, only the lower torso and little legs remain: “Perfect little legs with feet, knees, thighs, hips and a belly, the belly growing out of Sylvie’s own belly, just under her navel, and the feet hanging down to a few inches below her own knees” (p. 43).  Sylvie senses Sue as distinctively present  --  the cramping, twitching, and sexuality of her ‘little legs’ over which she has no will or control. She, herself, though tends to think about her own body as having an extra pair of legs. Sylvie’s mother, on the other hand, views Sue as “a daughter who was nothing but legs,” (p. 44) whose flesh is familial, closer to her own Scottish ancestry, than Sylvie’s Portuguese legs, which are more like her distant and passive father. In Sylvie’s early life, the family lives in a remote, sparsely populated area which isolates Sylvie from others. Yet, throughout childhood and into womanhood and in social encounters, Sylvie learns and experiences her twinned body, as both fascinating and repulsive. As a woman she encounters Dr. John Wilcox, a stranger attracted to her unusual embodiment and committed to transforming her through surgically amputating Sue. What role does the twinned body of Sylvie, as medically intriguing and perhaps erotically desirable, play in his attraction?  He tells her that that he loves her, will marry her, and help her to have an operation that will remove Sue, thus recuperating her to a ‘normal’ body and life.

Encounters with the anomalous other

Sylvie’s experiences and the range of others’ responses toward her highlight the anxiety and rejection of ambiguous and different bodies. Initially, in childhood, Sylvie doesn’t experience her body, conjoined with Sue, as negative or disturbing. Rather, in her view, her body is fortunately endowed relative to less excessive bodies.

Her mother’s obvious favoritism hurt Sylvie, but at the same time she felt sorry for her sister, and she appreciated her own good fortune in having an entire body, plus, at her sister’s expense, a second pair of legs, which even if they didn’t work, nobody else had. Given her mother’s behavior, the last thing Sylvie suspected was that the legs were alarming. There was nobody to tell her. (Gowdy, 1996, p. 45)

Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick (2002) remark that “subjectivity consists in becoming in a world with others” (p. 63). Forced into interactions with children, Sylvie discovers that she is strange and intolerable in a world that presumes normative bodies and singular selves. Like most children in western nations, she legally is forced to school, despite her mother’s wishes. In school, the children’s curiosity and violence are incited by her presence. The boys and girls force her on the ground and pull up her skirt; they look and touch her extra little legs. Of the children’s responses and Sylvie’s recognition of both the awe and disgust her body evokes, Barbara Gowdy (1996) writes:

The children who could see gasped and fell silent. “I am going to bring up,” a girl whispered and Sylvie thought that it was because of her underpants showing, hers and Sue’s, but then a boy touched her little leg on the shin, a quick testing pressure with the ends of his fingers, and Sylvie got the picture-her legs were white slugs when you turn over a rock. (p. 47)

The girls’ legs, like white slugs, are experienced as abject, “simultaneously and compulsively fascinating and repulsive, enticing and sickening” (Grosz, 1996, p. 56). Of the abject, Julia Kristeva (1982) writes:

It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one cannot protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us. It is thus not the lack of cleanliness or health that cause abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. (p. 4)

Conjoined bodies, like other forms of corporeal anomalies, disrupt expectations of how bodies should appear and function. In that the achievement of ‘proper’ human subjects and the normative order necessitates control, containment, or exclusion of bodies, or the parts of bodies, that are unsettling, that disturb, Sylvie is cast as other. She must be denied to maintain the preferred image of the unified, impermeable, and invulnerable self that underlies western modernist logos (Shildrick, 1999, 2002). Judith Butler (1993) claims that “thinking about the body as constructed demands a rethinking of the meaning of construction itself” (p. xi) as a ‘constitutive constraint’ that produces both intelligible bodies, and unthinkable and abject bodies. She states that the “exclusionary matrix by which subjects are formed thus requires the simultaneous production of a domain of abject beings, those who are not yet ‘subjects’, but who form the constitutive outside to the domain of the subject” (p. 3). Thus, neither the normative nor the monstrous can exist without the constitution of the other. However, monsters because of their excessiveness and radical difference resist identification or categorization and destabilize the “binary processes of identity and difference that devalue otherness” (Shildrick, 2002, p. 129). Thus, an encounter with monstrous or anomalous embodiment is a “confrontation with what is both a ‘constitutively outside’ and an impossible, irreducible excess,” (p. 130) which cannot be fully rejected from the self.

For Margrit Shildrick (2002), the monster is a hybrid figure of indeterminate identity that incites both fascination and anxiety. Asked nicely or not, Sylvie hikes up her skirt and relents to, and sometimes invites, people’s inspection and touch of her and Sue’s body. Why the compulsion of others to look with which Sylvie so readily complies? “Given that the ‘truth’ of body is not predetermined but constituted” (Price and Shildrick, 2002, p. 67) within discursive processes, visible difference and visual perception plays a major role in constituting what counts as a normal body and a monstrous body. Following this, interpretative vision is not neutral, but has productive power. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (2003) remarks that “bodies that depart from social expectations have always been the objects of intense visual interest rooted in the drive to explain and contain the extraordinary. The ordinary is safely anonymous, going unremarked and noticeable” (p. 131). Thus, the taken-for-granted ordinary body, believed to be singular, closed, and invulnerable may be forgotten and supposedly needs no investigation or explanation (Shildrick, 1999, 2002). The social compulsion to see Sylvie’s conjoined body and the range of bodily and emotional responses illustrates the fascination and deep unease towards those outside of the bounds of normative bodies, of those who reveal messy complicated realities of bodily vulnerability and “non-binary polymorphism as the ‘base’ of human nature” (Cohen, 1996, p. 6).

Sylvie’s conjoinment with Sue highlights the problem when identification or categorization isn’t apparent or possible. Similar to conjoined bodies, there are few conventions of how to relate to or how to talk about bodies and identities which are ambiguous or mixed, for example, people who are multi-racial, transgendered, intersexed, or bisexual. Also, because a proper human body is usually seen as having fully functioning vital organs or limbs, people whose differences might not be as radical or rejected as Sylvie’s, such as people with illnesses or disabilities, also exhibit a kind of ambiguity or in-betweenness. Because of the altered and fluctuating rhythms of their bodies or the removal or diminished vitality of a part of their bodies, they unsettle notions of life and death, and fail to adhere to conceptual binaries of health and illness, as being both and neither at the same time (Moss and Dyck, 2003). Even Barbara Gowdy (1996) centers the story on Sylvie and for the most part, Sue appears as her appendage - Sylvie’s ‘little legs’. As such, this literary maneuver seems to instate its own discursive normalization of Sylvie, as an identifiable singular entity. Yet, the narrative itself, leaves gaps for doubt of Sue as a merely a fleshy appendage when the readers realizes that feeling and function, such as desire and sexuality, occurs for Sylvie through her conjoinment with Sue and that Sue appears as a somewhat distinct, self-motivated entity. Thus, throughout the story, one is unavoidable drawn into contemplating the meaning and status of Sue’s body, Sylvie’s twined body, and their experience of conjoinment.

That Sylvie and Sue’s conjoinment disrupts constructed distinctions between mind and body, body and body, and self and other is aptly demonstrated throughout this story.  Margrit Shildrick (2002) remarks that in modernist terms self-identity entails a matched and integrated connection of body and mind, and the separation of one body from another body, a self from other selves. Thus, conjoined twins, she claims, raise the question that troubles the western imagination: “Who am I?” (p. 50).  She states: “To be a self is above all to be distinguished from the other, to be ordered and discrete, secure within the well-defined boundaries of the body rather than actually being the body” (p. 50).  In the appearance of bodily duplicity, multiplicity or hybridity, the ontological security of unified, autonomous individuality is ruptured. Sylvie’s body conjoined with Sue, and the somatic excess, deficit, and duplication, challenges notions of the body as a singular and bounded entity. The challenges are even more so because of the incomplete somatic form of Sue. Sexual, psychical, and physical distinctions between Sue and Sylvie are unclear. How many selves, bodies, and lives is Sylvie/Sue?

Gender plays an important role in reactions to and treatments of the Sylvie/Sue. The trajectory of awe and shock of differently embodied persons is augmented by cultural responses to female bodies and subjectivities. Throughout the story, Sylvie/Sue is subjected to multiple forms of sexual curiosity and violations. The children, especially boys and then later men, are captivated that Sylvie/Sue has a double set of legs and genitals. In school years, walking alone is not safe:

Boys ambush her and poke and tickle her little legs to see them kick. One day the boy who chain-smoked stuck his finger up between both pairs of her legs, her little one and then her own, and she had to race home to wash out the blood that dripped onto her underpants. (Gowdy, 1996, p. 49)

Jeffery Jerome Cohen (1996) states that “feminine and cultural others are monstrous enough by themselves in patriarchal society, but when they mingle, the entire economy of desire comes under attack” (p. 15). That Sylvie/Sue embodies fear and fascination of females, and that Sue, as half a body, is the lower half comprised of sexual and reproductive parts is not incidental. It is perhaps a comment, by Barbara Gowdy, on the existing cultural view of the leakiness, the deficiency, and the excessiveness of female bodies, and thus, the female body as less closed, as well as less close, than the male body to the idealized autonomous, separate, and closed self.

Throughout the story of Sylvie, multiple layers of symbolic, physical, and spatial demarcations of embodiment are illustrated. These are particularly evident in Sylvie’s experiences in a side-show of a carnival and in medical places. When Sylvie is a teenager, Mr. Bean’s carnival that purports to display the “tallest, smallest, thinnest, fattest, strangest, rarest ever to walk the face of the earth” (Gowdy, 1996, p. 53) comes to town. She leaves home and joins this traveling show. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (2003) remarks that the freak shows of carnivals offered entry into places of the abnormal, to ponder monstrosities. The exhibitions provided ritualized looking through which boundaries of human and not human, self and other, and ordinary and extraordinary, could be explored, constructed, and enforced. Of biomedicine and the freak show, Margrit Shildrick (2002) claims:

Like the biomedical gaze which manages monstrosities either by examining bodies of the dead or reducing living ones to categories of knowledge, the freak show, for all its play with the flexibility of boundaries between them and us, is finally no more then a safely contained and distancing display that seeks to sanitize the contaminatory potential of the anomalous other. (p. 24)

Historically then, the carnival, somewhat like present-day medicine, functioned as a borderland, a supposedly safe space in which those thought normative and non-normative could co-mingle in close proximity yet remain distinct and distant.

While joining the carnival may signify Sylvie’s own identification with the non-normative and monstrous, this choice is not an act of claiming a ‘true identity’. Rather, she penetrates more deeply the phantasmal cultural imaginary of embodied identities. Following the fashion of monsters in literature and freak shows, in a process of projection and hyperbolic exaggeration, Sylvie/Sue’s staged identity becomes ‘The Incredible Girl-Boy’, Sylvie as female and Sue as male. Multiplicity magnifies as now she becomes imagined as a doubled body which also lacks gender and sexual differentiation. The audience delights in the breaching and muddling of categories expressed in Sylvie’s routine, such as, “When Bill feels the call of nature, what do I do? Step into the ladies’ or the men’s?” (Gowdy, 1996, p. 58). Jeffery Jerome Cohen (1996) claims that transhistorically monsters are never created ex nihilo, but through a process of fragmentation and recombination in which elements are extracted “from various forms” (including  --  indeed, especially  --  marginalized social groups) and then assembled as the monster” (p. 11). Thus, monsters are devised as the embodiment of multiplicity, transgression, and combinations of human and non-human elements.

When not performing Sylvie covers Sue with her dress and wanders throughout the town. Sylvie’s doubled performance of the radically and marvelously different in the freak show and of the normative in the streets indicates embodied identities as performances. Given that embodied identities, including race, gender, and others, may be performed suggests that all bodies are discursively constituted, an achievement rather than a natural given (Shildrick, 2002).  Judith Butler (1990, 1993) suggests that performances both may reproduce and destabilize modernist notions of naturalized and essentialized bodies and identities. Sylvie knows how to pass in public places which expect unremarkable embodiments. From her study of insects she has gleaned the following lesson: “To defend itself the catocala hides its colorful wings with dull wings that blend in with its surrounding” (Gowdy, 1996, p. 51). In a discussion of the in/visibility of embodied identities, Ellen Samuels (2003) complicates notions of passing as deliberate (hiding one’s difference) or default (non-visible differences) through the claim that non-recognition often derives from the other’s assumptions of taken-for granted normativities, such heterosexuality or able-bodiness. In passing, Sylvie feels both same and other, Barbara Gowdy (1996) writes: “On one hand Sylvie loves the feeling of being like everyone else, which is to say nobody in particular” (p. 56). This sense of ordinariness co-exists with a sense of discord because “when she feels most like a freak is when she’s getting away with not being one” (p. 56). In regard to disability, Ellen Samuel (2003) claims “like racial, gender, and queer passing, the option of passing as nondisabled provides both a level of privilege and a profound sense of misrecognition and internal dissonance” (p. 239). Mis/recognition happens for Sylvie on two accounts: Sylvie, as Sylvie/Sue, is not seen or acknowledged. Also, her attractive appearance receives attention, so that she is not “as inconspicuous as the freaks (carnival performers) like to think. Wherever she goes, men look at her” (Gowdy, 1996, p. 56).

Later in the story and through her relationship with Dr. John Wilcox, Sylvie becomes not ‘freak’ but ‘patient’ and perhaps both. The junctures of medical places and of other places in this story indicate that social systems, desires, and forces that act on bodies are not contained, but leak and overlap. Sylvie is now a medical object to be handled and studied, although her appearance has become restricted to a more select social group that are legitimized to look, define, and reform bodies to maintain expected corporeal boundaries. Dr. Wilcox, like all the doctors or health care practitioners in this story, is fascinated by her conjoinment, but his appraisal and touch is sanitized, detached, and possessive. Of Dr. Wilcox’s posture toward her, Sylvie notes: “Nothing she says seems to surprise or even impress him” and when examining her little legs, his “expression is like Mr. Bean’s (the carnival owner). Absorbed and professional, nothing to do with her” (Gowdy, 1996, p. 60). This distant stance towards the connectivity of Sylvie and Sue and their phenomenological experience of conjoinment is further amplified through the physicians’ preoccupation with revealing the ‘truth’ of Sylvie’s twinned body through the use of biomedical and visual technologies, the blood tests, x-rays, and ultrasounds.

Clinical disciplinary gazes and popular gazes now co-conspire to interpret and name non-normative bodies. Claudia Castaneda (2002) states that “description is a form of ontological politics: it makes claims to the real” (p. 142). Reiterations of naturalizing norms of embodiment are illustrated in the medical terms used by the surgeon to describe Sylvie, as the proper body: “autosite”; “host body” and in the terms to describe Sue: “the legs and hips”; “parasite”; and “excess plumbing” (Gowdy, 1996, p. 61-62). Judith Butler (1990, 1993) explains that discursive power achieves its productive effect through reiteration of naturalizing norms. Because bodily unity and stability is never completely assured, ‘normative power’ must be repeatedly performed as constitutive declarations of real and non real, self and non-self, and human and not human. She claims that these reiterations, themselves, comprise a failure of discursive power as each re-utterance assumes a failure in their effects to solidify the permanence of normative discourses of the singular, closed, autonomous, and stable body.

Gillian Rose (1996) highlights the ambivalence towards ‘impossible objects’ as underlying projects that define and demarcate what counts for real and non-real, self and other. From a medical point of view, Sue, the partial body, the half-female, and the unreal, has no human status, or legal or ethical claim. Sylvie’s own lived experiences of her conjoined embodiment and that of Sue’s are unacknowledged. For Dr. Wilcox, others, and increasingly for Sylvie, her conjoined body becomes an ‘im/possible object’, which must be resolved through the amputation of Sue. To prepare for her transformation, she begins to repeat to herself: “There is no Sue.”; “Two legs do not add up to a human being” (Gowdy, 1996, p. 64). The surgery designed to assimilate and reject Sylvie though reproducing and revaluing a socially idealized ‘real’ body, singular, autonomous, and closed, thus, may be seen as a “performance of normative power” (Rose, 1996, p. 58).

Sylvie is compliant with her upcoming and multiple risky surgeries due to the seductive social and material benefits of a surgically constructed normative body (invisibility, heterosexual partnering, ready-made, fitting clothes). But, there are glimpses of rebellion and struggle. At night, “Her little legs kick and fret…They know. They are licentious.” Sylvie worries: “What if she becomes someone else for whom nothing that happened to the person she was will be worth preserving?” (Gowdy, 1996, p. 68). In his work Meditations, René Descartes (1641/1968) claims that:

Although the whole mind seems to be united to the whole body, yet, if a foot, or an arm, or any other part, is separated from my body, it is certain that on that account, nothing has been taken away from my mind. (p. 164)

Yet, contra Descartes, one might read this story as illustrating that one’s body is inseparably entwined with selfhood, identity, and experience. We may question with Sylvie what and who she may become separated from Sue. Further, we might query the unproblematic status of Sue, as appendage, easily amputated and discarded.

For Sylvie, the wealthy and handsome Dr. Wilcox becomes the “good” male figure - father, doctor, judge, priest, husband - saving her from herself and restoring her situation. Through this, Barbara Gowdy opens up possibilities through which to question Dr. Wilcox, and by extension, the supposed benevolence of medical and other forms of interventions into bodies. Abby Wilkerson (2002) claims that medical discourses and practices have become the current prevailing authoritative means to alleviate fear of disordered bodies and associated loss of social order. Moreover, Susan Wendell (1996) suggests that “the desire for perfection and control of the body, or for elimination of differences that are feared, poorly understood, and widely considered to be marks of inferiority, easily masquerade as the compassionate desire to prevent or stop suffering” (p. 156).  In Sylvie’s recuperation to the normative through surgical means, Barbara Gowdy (1996) suggest a narrative similar to actual medical documentaries and media images of conjoined twins rescued from deprived ‘Third World’ conditions by ‘First World’ nations and their subsequent physical rematerialization and acculturation (Clark and Myers, 1996).  More banal and less extreme, it is also the themes of current reality make-over shows in which love, happiness, status, and self-esteem are ‘guaranteed’ by body modification and transformation.

Re-thinking embodiments and transformations

The story of Sylvie ends at the moment of her assimilation into a realm of body normality through the surgical excision of Sue, leaving the reader uncertain whether Sylvie has been recovered or ruined. This uncomfortable story, with a deeply ethical core, opens the reader to plight and possibilities offered by forms of beings who exhibit radical difference. In doing so, it makes possible an inquiry into the material and discursive limits of bodies.

The appearance of bodies, such as conjoined twins, not within the range of normative standards challenges deeply valued notions of the proper aesthetic and functioning body. The story of Sylvie supports thinking about anomalous bodies and identities, as ‘enabling disruptions’ of conventional notions of selfhood and embodiment. Dominated by binaries of mind and body, self and other, and normal and abnormal and through strategies of identification and inclusion and abjection and exclusion, Hughes (1999) claims that “modernity has a particularly pervasive capacity to produce strangers; people, that is, who disturb its fragile ‘cognitive, moral, and aesthetic’ boundaries and challenge its rather overbearing sense of order” (p.157). Indeed, anomalous bodies are conceived “as embodied mistakes, and rarely as a human experience which requires rethinking of ways of making sense of ourselves, of others, and of our culture” (Titchkosky, 2003, p. 203).

Given this, Canadians Tatiana and Krista Hogan, similar to other conjoined twins, incite controversy about whether such differently embodied selves should be permitted to live and if so, a virtually unquestioned assumption that separation is essential regardless of the threat of severe disablement or death to the life of one or both. In such cases, the notion of living as multiple rather than a singular bounded self is unimaginable. Both the constitution of the normative body and the monstrous body must be rethought, as I have attempted to do here. At stake is the possibility and permissibility of life for the Canadian twins Tatiana and Krista Hogan and others with different embodiments.

Barbara Gowdy’s (1996) story of Sylvie provides a compelling opportunity to reflect upon radically different forms of being that provoke and disturb because they cannot be easily categorized and to interrogate our standards of normalcy that disallow, contain, or assimilate those conceived as other or strange. Elizabeth Grosz (1996) distinguishes what might be considered extreme forms of body anomalies, such as conjoined twins, from more ‘commonplace’ body differences, for example people with disabilities, who are blind or deaf, or have abnormalities in or transplanted internal organs. Radical anomalous conditions of excess, lack, and/or multiplicity, she claims, “cross the borders that divide the subject from all ambiguities, interconnections, and reciprocal classifications, outside of or beyond the human” (p. 57). She claims that the power to generate simultaneous reactions of horror and fascination, anxiety and curiosity, rejection and awe “rather than simple responses of pity, admiration, or wonder” (p. 56) is the indeterminate and uncontainable nature of the form. Yet, I question though if categories of difference across any and all supposed disordered bodies and/or minds, the commonplace to extreme, can be decidedly and categorically divided from one another. Many bodies and bodily states might be said to be at the edges of or outside the bounds of what constitutes the normative body, and thus proper and intelligible human subjects, including physically disabled or ill bodies, feminized bodies, growing bodies, aged bodies, racial and sexual others, fat bodies, menstruating bodies, pregnant bodies, identical twins, bodies in pain, and those with mental disabilities.

Furthermore, while biomedical technologies may be used to reproduce a culturally ideal aesthetic or functioning body, at the same time, they also have potential to create bodies with their own forms of transgression and hybridity, for example, in the cases of artificial organs, implantable body parts, and other couplings. Each offers their own challenge to notions of the singular, closed, self-sufficient, and stable normative body and highlight biomedicine’s own ambiguity. Thus, a wide variety of bodily conditions or functions, whether permanent or transitory, destabilize culturally constructed standards that define ‘normal’ and ‘human’. In doing so, they elicit recognition of the uncertainty, ambiguity, and vulnerability as the basis of all living bodies rather than only an attribute of the other. Hence, rethinking normative standards may extend beyond the mere tolerance or revaluing of differently embodied selves but rather open us to “the otherness of possible worlds, or possible versions of ourselves, not yet realized” (Shildrick, 2002, p. 129).


The story of Sylvie is the authors’ imagining of a life that is formed around living a particular unusual embodiment. Certainly, this story holds voyeuristic intrigue, and I use it here as exemplar but not as a special case in that one can rethink the implications of social and medical categorization and production of bodies for all our bodies, not just some bodies. The medical assimilation of Sylvie into the normative is the necessary failure, both relieving and intensifying the tensions the author has created. In this, Barbara Gowdy (1996) twists familiar fairy-tales, the cultural hopeful narrative of second chances and happy endings, in which body transformation means resolution, liberation, and salvation. Despite and perhaps aptly emphasized by the story’s conclusion, we are left to ponder the social and medical imperative, our desire, for the transformation of Sylvie and potential alternatives.


I would like to extend a sincere appreciation to Margrit Shildrick for her mentorship and encouragement. Thanks also to Carla Rice, Patricia McKeever, Barbara Gibson, and Ann Fox for their reviews and insightful comments. This article was supported by the Ontario Women’s Health Council/Canadian Institute of Health Research, Gender and Health Institute, Canadian Institute of Health Research Strategic Training Program in Health Care, Technology, and Place, University of Toronto, Hospital for Sick Children Foundation, and Bloorview Children’s Hospital Foundation.


Armstrong, J. (April 24, 2007a). Connecting with a pair of angels. Globe and Mail. Retrieved September 22, 2007 from http://www.theglobeandmail.com

Armstrong, J. (April 27, 2007b). A diving issue can the girls be separated?” Globe and Mail. Retrieved September 22, 2007 from http://www.theglobeandmail.com

Bolton, G. (2005). Medicine and literature: Writing and reading. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 11 (2), 171-179.

Butler, J. (1993). Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of sex. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

Castaneda, C. (2002). Figurations: Child, bodies, worlds. London: Duke University Press.

Clark, D. and Myers C. (1996). Being humaned: Medical documentaries and the hyperrealization of conjoined twins. In R. Garland-Thomson (Ed.), Freakery (pp. 338-355). New York: University Press.

Cohen, J. J. (1996). Monster culture (seven theses). In J.J. Cohen (Ed.), Monster theory: Reading culture (pp. 3-25). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Descartes, R. (1968). Meditations on the First Philosophy. Discourse on Method and the Meditations (F. E. Sutcliffe, Trans.). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. (original work published in 1641).

Drake, L. (2007). “Separation surgery too risky, family told,” Globe and Mail, August 4, 2007, http://www.theglobeandmail.com, (accessed September 22, 2007).

Garland-Thomson, R. (2003). Making freaks: Visual rhetorics and the spectacle of Julia Pastrana. In J. J. Cohen and G. Weiss (Eds.), Thinking the limits of the body (pp. 129-143). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Gowdy, B. (1996). Sylvie: We so seldom look on love (pp. 43-69). South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press.

Grosz, E. (1996). Intolerable ambiguity: Freaks as/at the limit. In R. Garland-Thomson (Ed.), Freakery (pp. 55-66). New York: University Press.

Hughes, B. (1999). The constitution of impairment: Modernity and the aesthetic of oppression, Disability and Society, 14 (2), 55-172.

Hume, M. (April 27, 2007). Tears, fears for conjoined twins. Globe and Mail.  Retrieved September 22, 2007 from http://www.theglobeandmail.com

Jones, W. G. (May 21, 2007). The many tragedies of conjoined twins. Canadian Free Press. Retrieved June 1, 2009 from http://www.canadafreepress.com/medical/medical-notes052107.htm.

Kristeva, J. (1982). Power of horrors: An essay on abjection. New York: Columbia University Press.

Moss, P. and Dyck, I. (2002). Women, body, illness: Space and identity in the everyday lives of women with chronic illness. Oxford: Rowman and Little Publishers.

Price, J. and Shildrick, M. (2002). Bodies together: Touch, ethics and disability. In M. Corker and T. Shakespeare (Eds.), Disability/Postmodernity: Employing disability theory (pp. 62-75). London: Continuum.

Rose, G. (1996). As if the mirrors had bled, Masculine dwelling, masculinist theory and feminist masquerade. In N. Duncan (Ed.), Body space: Destabilizing geographies of gender and sexuality (pp. 56-74). Routledge: London.

Samuels, E. (2003). My body, my closet: Invisible disability and the limits of coming-out discourse. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 9 (1), 233-255.

Smith, N. A. (November 01, 2006). “It needed to be said.” Globe and Mail. Retrieved September 22, 2007 from http://www.theglobeandmail.com

Shildrick, M. (1999). This body which is not one: Dealing with differences. Body and Society, 5, (2-3), 77-92.

Shildrick, M. (2002). Embodying the monster: Encounters with the vulnerable self. London: Sage Publications.

Titchkosky, T. (2003). Disability, self, society. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Wendell, S. (1996). The rejected body: Feminist philosophical reflections of disability. New York: Routledge.

Wilkerson, A. (2002). Disability, sex radicalism, and political agency. NWSA Journal, 14 (3), 33-57.

Wente, M. (October 31, 2006). “Twin sides of the coin.” Globe and Mail. Retrieved September 22, 2007 from http://www.theglobeandmail.com

Biographical note:

Hilde Zitzelsberger is a PhD candidate in the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing and alumni of the CIHR PhD training program Heath Care, Technology and Place at the University of Toronto. Her interests include children’s and adult’s embodiments, gender issues, and health care technologies and places.  She enjoys rural living and spending time with her three dogs.