Luce Brett takes on the leaky lady taboo
Today I’m pleased to be speaking with English author Luce Brett about her new book, PMSL: Or How I Literally Pissed Myself Laughing And Survived the Last Taboo to Tell The Tale, which she describes as part motherhood memoir, part healthcare memoir, and on a bigger scale, an honest, no-holds-barred tale of unspeakable conditions, taboos and what has to change.
When Luce became incontinent at the age of 30, after the birth of her first son, she felt her life had ended. She also felt scared, upset, embarrassed and shocked. How the hell had she ended up there, the youngest woman in the waiting room at the incontinence clinic?
Over ten year period, Luce faced plenty of difficulties, a lot of hurt, and a world of pain as well as downright craziness. She also started the very useful blog When You Are That Woman.
In opening an honest discussion about the normally taboo world of being a leaky lady, Luce reassures us that just because a problem is difficult to talk about, it shouldn’t be swept under the carpet. Post natal care, birth trauma and incontinence tend to be overlooked in research and treatment, maybe regarded as something that shouldn’t be talked about or that only happens elsewhere. For centuries, women have been expected to suffer in silence, and not to scare others with their stories of embarrassing conditions.
As a long-time sufferer and I guess “survivor” of endometriosis and cystic hyperplasia, I know a little bit about invisible lady illness that nobody wants to discuss. It’s wonderful that Luce is able to combine her writing skills to address the important topic.
Welcome, Luce, great to speak with you. Why is writing this book important to you?
Luce: Writing PMSL was incredibly important to me. I was sure there were leaky people out there who needed to hear they were not alone. I dedicated the book to them.
Incontinence is an everyday taboo, a commonplace story that never gets the attention it deserves and the ramifications of that aren’t just personal. Yes, women – and men – with these intimate problems don’t always get help or suffer in silence, but worse, that taboo trickles down and incontinence treatments aren’t researched well enough, there isn’t the innovation or focus there could be, it isn’t part of policy.
The picture is changing but it needs to be a new and open conversation.
I really hope PMSL helps get people talking about both the condition and how to help and cure it – which for many, many sufferers is totally possible, cheap and quick.
So do I! That sounds really important. I’m so glad What would readers never guess about you?
I am actually quite shy about my body, very squeamish and really embarrassed about all my parts. It is weird that my first book is about my most private parts, and is very frank and straightforward about exactly what eg birth was like, how my injuries and complications looked and felt. I went all-in because I felt I owed that to readers. If I was asking them to stick with me in such a strange and stigmatised world, I just couldn’t lie to them. That’s why I get pretty down and dirty with the details, even about the biggest taboos like poo incontinence, wetting myself in public, getting depressed, and the effect on my relationships.
That cultural imposition of embarrassment is so hard to overcome, even when we’re talking health conditions that are so important and not all that uncommon. Good on you for getting stuck in! Writing is hard enough without having to face your fears as well. What was your favourite book as a child?
I also adored Roald Dahl’s Boy and then Going Solo, which I read with my Grandpa. He shared my love of Dahl’s vicious humour and Blake’s illustrations. I can still remember the thrill of dead mice in sweetie jars, but also the melancholy of Going Solo: the expanse of Dahl’s airborne views, the strangeness of war stories from his POV.
In one story, Dahl’s eating olives and watching a ship burn on the horizon. I was entranced by what he captured in a simple scene with limited action. Until you asked, I’d never made the connection that Boy and Going Solo are memoirs.
All books about people and their connections, I see. What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?
I’ve had extraordinary responses from people to my blogs and articles, telling me they’ve had a problem, sometimes for years and years, and never once told anyone, or that thanking me for being open. That includes from doctors, patients, other mums, men with incontinence issues, physiotherapists, journalists. Some are ashamed, some aren’t, many feel voiceless, like they have all these thoughts and feelings about it and nowhere to put them, no-one to speak to, no opportunity for anyone to provide the space to talk. It is so gratifying and if it doesn’t sound too weird, it’s a real honour to know that what I’ve written has allowed someone to do that, even if only briefly.
How do you feel about reviews?
Haha! I know that feeling! How much research is involved in your writing?
Lots. Alongside trawling my letters/emails/diaries/photos, I spoke to practitioners, campaigners, physios, nurses, surgeons, midwives and charities, including ones that help women in other countries with poor obstetric care who end up with terrible injuries. I did some historical research into the appalling, racist history of some gynaecological operations and procedures, surgical techniques, and medical and social research. I also took a deep dive into the cultural impact of incontinence – where it crops up in literature, pop culture, myths, poems, and why we have such a perfect storm of shame around it.
That’s a very good phrase for it – a perfect storm of shame. What five words would best describe your style?
Frank. Witty. Honest. Self-deprecating. Open (also, probably worth mentioning sweary).
Love it! Did you write for yourself or for a particular audience?
My writing is a combination of personal memoir and wider musings on a theme. I’m introducing a difficult topic that people really find hard to talk about, and telling the reader my experiences – some hilarious, some nice, some ghastly, some gory, some empowering, some sad – frankly and with no coyness, in the hope they feel less alone.
Obviously, one huge audience is leaky people (an often ignored group), especially anyone who felt they were the only one reacting in a certain way (finding it sad, funny, depressing, terrifying, shocking, disturbing or whatever). But I hope it is more than a patient memoir, and it definitely isn’t a blame game or a rant. It looks at social issues, medical history, misogyny but it’s about resilience, and how you react to, and grow from, trauma and all our attitudes to broken bodies.
I want it to be immediate and engaging, and very up close, as if we’re sitting in a pub having one of those oddly deep and meaningful conversations you sometimes have with relative strangers. The illustrations are designed to look like sketches on a napkin giving you an idea, rather than using complicated or intimidating medical diagrams.
Excellent concept. What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?
Read the audiobook for PMSL: three days straight talking about my broken fanny, and my darkest moments, knowing some other people might hear it. I cried a lot reading it back. Also, having a second child, though he’s beyond worth it. Surgeries and tests. And reading a eulogy. All of them felt exposing but important.
So we can get your book as an audio book?
Yes, read by me. Cursing myself for my long sentences and alliteration.
Perfect. What do you read yourself – what’s your favourite genre?
Memoir and murder mystery/crime.
If you could write a note to someone about to read your book, what would you say?
If you have similar problems I’m so sorry. It sucks. And though we (everybody) need to be more kind and open about embarrassing medical problems, and stop shaming leaky people, you don’t have to be pressured to shout about your problem. I’ve done that already. Just try and get help. It is available in so many different places. And you aren’t alone. I promise.
Fantastic words. Thank you so much for speaking with me today. I’ll be sprucing this book far and wide!
LINKS for LUCE BRETT
Where Luce’s story to publication began: www.whenyouarethatwoman.co.uk
On twitter @lucebrett
On instagram @lucebrett
I am thrilled if anyone buys my book anywhere, but my local bookshop is the amazing co-operative bookshop The All Good Bookshop.