Book Review by Laura Grace Simpkins
Abi Palmer. Penned in the Margins, 2020. 9781908058713
Teresa of Avila, the Saint Teresa immortalised by Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s electrifying marble sculpture, was a sixteenth-century Spanish nun and mystic. She became a local celebrity for her raptures, which, according to those who witnessed her ecstatic spiritual experiences, regularly involved levitation. These airborne feats were an embarrassment to her and she insisted her followers held her down as soon as they occurred. It is Teresa Abi Palmer meets in mid-air, floating away from her pain.
In Sanatorium, mixed-media artist and writer Palmer’s first book, Palmer goes on several journeys: some of them physical, others more metaphysical. She travels to a spa in Budapest, situated on the Danube’s Thermal Margaret Island, where she stays for a month undergoing alternative treatments, including underwater massage and magnetic therapy, for the management of her debilitating chronic pain. Palmer then returns to London, where she spends time in her flat—most of it in an inflatable ‘small and bucket shaped’ tub she buys from China, purchased with the hope of recreating the spa at home—and in her memories of being in an in-patient NHS hospital ward (9).
Palmer’s interactions with private and public healthcare are contrasted throughout the book—with the latter considerably less favoured. Her funding for the spa was received not from the NHS nor taken out of her or her family’s pocket, but from Arts Council England (ACE). At one point she makes ‘a joke about how there are only so many times you can research your own rehabilitation’—the results of which are this book and a short film (166). The joke is dryly amusing, although the recipient doesn’t laugh, and contained within it is a sharp indictment of the state of public medicine in one of the world’s wealthiest countries and the absurdity of having to apply to a charitable arts organisation to explore treatment options for chronic pain. In her acknowledgements, Palmer still thanks the NHS: ‘Sorry I’ve been critical. I love you’ (222).
Whether in spa waters or an inflatable tub, in Sanatorium Palmer is almost always floating. Taking the waters is centuries, if not millennia old, but rather than entirely dedicate the book to its potential benefits for her physical health, Palmer also addresses what it’s like to float phenomenologically, chiefly via what psychologists term ‘dissociation’. The initial out-of-body experience Palmer records is her response to being sexually assaulted, when she ‘lost her virginity out of politeness’ (34). Later on in the book, Palmer grows concerned about an over-attentive musician who makes her feel deeply uncomfortable in the dining room at the spa. She worries he might follow her around the hotel: ‘I become scared of the long corridor between the dining room and the thermal tunnel’ (119). These are two examples out of many where Palmer is not listened to, where her consent does not seem to matter.
To relay her traumatic experiences, those of sexual assault as well as her everyday reality of living as a woman with chronic pain, Palmer works with an experimental form. The timeline of Sanatorium is thus suitably unchronological, shifting from Budapest to London to Budapest almost every other page; and Palmer employs multiple genres of writing—memoir, fiction, poetry, as well as illustrations by her friend Nick Murray—perhaps following the lineage of women writers who deal with illness and trauma in their work. The serrated, hybridist forms of Anne Boyer, Maggie Nelson, and Carmen Maria Machado come to mind.
The most exciting device Palmer draws on to frame her trauma is a lesbian dialogue, heavily laden with queer eroticism, between her and Teresa of Avila. In An Archive of Feelings, Ann Cvetkovich notes, not uncontroversially, that lesbianism and trauma may be inextricably linked. Cvetkovich goes onto investigate ‘the intersections of lesbian and therapeutic cultures through attention to the queerness of trauma and healing’, concluding that therapeutic spaces aren’t just feminised, they are also lesbianised. Cvetkovich asserts that breaking the silence of trauma, in whatever way, is inherently queer. Palmer’s decision to ‘lesbianise’ her trauma, while she simultaneously reflects on her sexuality (such as her desire for Teresa to force an egg-shaped pebble inside of her), resonates perhaps with Cvetkovich’s theorising and powerfully reclaims the floating space as one that can maintain associations with both pleasure and pain.
Sanatorium itself is a kind of floatation chamber, hallucinogenic, wispy, apophenic, into which I was gently guided. From there I watched Palmer’s story whirlpool around my head like a vision from heaven. For me, the inflatable tub Palmer buys isn’t simply a proxy of the spa’s healing waters or the metaphor for her chronic illness that the blurb suggests. It’s a cauldron in which Palmer brews her potion, concocts her recipe, surreally, sarcastically, joyfully—but for coping not for curing. For being in charge of her own treatment, her own narrative. For listening to her body and for being listened to when she says ‘no more’. I emerged from Sanatorium hot, sweaty, and heady. Profoundly, numinously changed.
 Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 92.