Say Anarcha: A Young Woman, a Devious Surgeon, and the Harrowing Birth of Modern Women’s Health
(Henry Holt & Co., 2023)
When you ask for this one at the bookstore, you raise a cry for justice. Say Anarcha takes its title from an enslaved woman out of Alabama who, starting in her teens, not long before the Civil War, had her uterus torn apart repeatedly, in most cases without anesthesia, in experimental surgery by J. Marion Sims, a white doctor hungry for reputation. The man went on to international acclaim, while the woman returned to servitude worse off than before, leaking rank fluids and never out of pain. This is the crime at the core of J.C. Hallman’s new masterpiece of revisionist history. The text can be categorized more modestly, as a dual biography enriched by forays into related history. As such, it never lacks for fascination, whether in an aside about Indigenous Alabama lacrosse or on a tour of European spas with Napoleon III. Yet the focus always returns to Sims and the enslaved woman, and so raises that outcry: an assertion of the victim’s complex humanity, contained in the name alone.
“Anarcha” is the way Sims set it down in his records, but Hallman turns up several quasi-pseudonyms. The assortment would seem confounding, except for this author’s prodigious research; once his puzzle-pieces are all in shape, there’s no question that it’s the same woman. The earliest record appears in an 1828 listing of some Alabama property, a plantation with an inventory that included not only children but a certain “Anaka.” Soon thereafter the girl begins to learn her woods medicine, and over time she even attends to her white overlords. In the household register, the name turns up other permutations, like “Ankey.” Her final metamorphosis takes place a long way north, on a tombstone in the Shenandoah foothills: “Annacay.” The marker’s fallen but still legible, a century and half after its inscription, and it testifies to a well-nigh miraculous string of achievements: the woman lived on after Appomattox, with a husband, a family, and her own farmland.
When Hallman went searching for the grave, he had a backwoods guide. Even so: “I was completely lost ten steps into the forest, and have gotten lost again each of the half-dozen times I have returned.” The author admits his failings, that is⎯while also underscoring his diligence. He made certain of what he’d come across in that Appalachian holler, just as he did for all his library work. If Say Anarcha had included the usual Acknowledgements, we read in its introduction, they’d have wound up “significantly longer than the book itself.” Instead, Hallman directs us to an online resource, the Anarcha Archive (also on YouTube). This features, most especially, the testimony of former enslaved people, many themselves nameless, recorded for the Federal Writers’ Project of the 1930s.
Then too, the Archive provides a sense of the author’s decade-long efforts. At times he must’ve flown on a wing and a prayer, winning small grants, and placing excerpts of the work here and there (one in Harpers). Before then, his track record included other non-fiction, my favorite Wm & H’ry (2013), a close read of the voluminous correspondence between William and Henry James. I should add, too, that I once met Hallman for drinks, and that he’s reviewed my work favorably. Nevertheless, my feelings for his latest go far beyond “favorable,” just as Say Anarcha goes far beyond anything else he’s accomplished. A fresh crack of light across the grim shadows of slavery and race hatred, the text also treats a reader to ripping yarns.
The introductory materials run just a few pages, but they set up what Hallman terms, in one of the long book’s very few footnotes, “a mystery.” He speaks of this early research in first person, his tone softened by doubt, as his project looms up both nebulous and vast. Nevertheless, these uncertain initial steps press on, and he winds up bushwhacking in search of the grave. The quest succeeds, it turns up an essential clue, yet in turn raises more questions. Just for starters, who put the monument together⎯with names, dates, and more⎯and then arranged for it to be set up in “a hidden and quite rugged piece of land?”
Behind these smaller unknowns lurks a far larger one, the tormented generations of American bondsmen and -women, before Emancipation. Regarding the white doctor-tormenter, on the other hand, there’s no end of material. The sheer bulk of bibliographic data on Sims rivals the James brothers’ correspondence, and a good deal of this writing is polished to the high gleam of self-promotion. The man was a disciple of P.T. Barnum (another figure in the colorful background) and might well have been better, fundamentally, at marketing than at surgery. By the start of the Civil War, J. Marion Sims was regarded as the founder of a new science, gynecology. His operations on Anarcha and others seemed to yield a cure for vaginal fistula, which generally resulted from the era’s clumsy birth practices. The cure proved the making of the man, and eventually his reputation burns like “a comet.” But Anarcha and the other enslaved women on whom he’d experimented—those who survived—struggled on in darkness.
Such a vivid contrast, opposite ends of the same usury, makes for a purring story engine. Most of the book unfolds in third person, in the potent manner of In Cold Blood, switching off between the major players. The doctor’s family ranks as South Carolinian nobility, but they’ve fallen on hard times. Different as these two are, however, one of the elements drawing them together is a shared interest in medicine.
Anarcha comes under the wing of an older woods healer, Pheriba, one of Hallman’s best secondary characters. Her lessons afford rich samples of the loamy slave rhythms:
…cures that… no white doctor in Alabama knew anything about. For fevers, use teas of elderbrush, slippery elm, feverweed, or devil’s shoestring, or wrap the feverish person up in cabbage or ginseng leaves, or if it gets worse mix ashes with shavings from the hoof of a hog and make a tea from that.
A passage like that speaks to the resources of enslaved people. Outside of the care provided by these resources, unsurprisingly, whole catalogs of mistreatment crop up in the novel, and everyone talks of escaping North. Overall, though, the text generates sympathy more subtly. Pheriba’s list, for instance, exemplifies how, for the downtrodden, healing is the whole point. For Sims, on the other hand, it’s all about asserting himself. He seeks to be a man “of proper kidney”—a great example of his period rhetoric—in an “arena… as vicious as a cockfighting pit.”
In other words, this villain never looks like Snidely Whiplash. Hallman takes time with the man’s many trials, dragging on into middle age, and acknowledges both his surgical dexterity and his few genuine breakthroughs. Sims brought fresh science into his discipline, after all. Indeed, a heartbreaking pattern in this history is watching him and his colleagues, all white and male, make some valuable discovery and then apply it in the worst possible way. The consequence: another young woman lies dead on the table.
By the 1850s, however, Sims had relocated to New York, then as now the American Grub Street. He’d found the publicity engines he needed. Down South, meanwhile, Anarcha stubbornly refuses to die, her crippled body evidence of his cure’s worthlessness, but he can act as if she never existed. Thus the climax of Say Anarcha comes at an unlikely mention of her name. By then the War’s on, and Sims is in Paris, using his medical practice as cover for acting as a Confederate operative. At a salon one evening, he runs into an old friend who recently spent time with Anarcha; she’s been sold to some Virginians. The news leaves the doctor badly shaken—all the worse for how his friend describes her, calling Anarcha “a comet,” visible around the world. Now thanks to Hallman’s instant classic, she’s back in the skies and burning more brightly than ever.