CW medical abuse, mention of sexual abuse
Harvard University owns a book bound in skin excoriated from the back of a woman who died institutionalized for mental illness.
She did not consent for this man to slice the skin off her back. He just took it, because he was a doctor and he could: perhaps the most literal expression of how disabled bodies are not allowed boundaries.
Skin is what makes a body a body.
There are three qualities that separate life from non-life, according to Astrobiology Magazine.
Quality #1: An “identity,” a body with a boundary between it and the world, to form a “bag of chemicals.”
Without skin, we have no boundaries; without skin, the proteins and gases and enzymes and blood inside of us have no bag to contain them. Without skin, we have no identity.
And a doctor, in a final act of violence, took this patient’s only boundary between her body and the world. He took her identity.
All we know is she died of apoplexy. We do not know her name, for the good doctor never thought to record it.
No skin off his back.
Sometime in the mid-1880s, when his friend Arsène Houssaye wrote Des Destinees de l’Ame — The Destiny of the Soul — and gave him a copy, he bound this book in his patient’s skin and wrote this note inside (translated from the French):
“This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman. It is interesting to see the different aspects that change this skin according to the method of preparation to which it is subjected. Compare for example with the small volume I have in my library, Sever. Pinaeus de Virginitatis notis which is also bound in human skin but tanned with sumac.”
He fetishized her skin, gazed at its pores, thought it “elegant.” It raises questions, for me, of what other boundaries he might have crossed, before her death.
In fact, this doctor bound that other book he mentioned in (it seems) the same patient’s skin: De integritatis et corruptionis virginum notis, a tome containing detailed descriptions of the hymen & how to examine it for signs of lost virginity. Inside, he wrote, “This curious little book on virginity, which seemed to me to deserve a binding in keeping with its subject matter, is bound with a piece of woman’s skin that I tanned myself with some sumac.”
Disabled people suffer much higher rates of sexual violence: our bodies are not allowed the same boundaries.
Des Destinees de l’Ame:
Notice I have not named the doctor. It is intentional. He who commits an unspeakable offense shall remain unspoken.
To prove a book is bound in human skin, you can’t just perform DNA analysis: so many hands have touched it, it could be contaminated. Maybe it’s goat skin but your test comes back with touch DNA from a random library patron. Maybe the good doctor had his mitts all over the body, and then the book. You could study the pores and hair patterns to differentiate from animal vellum or parchment, but it’s too subjective. Instead, you have to analyze the collagen peptides.
Microscopic samples were taken from various locations on the binding, and were analyzed by peptide mass fingerprinting, which identifies proteins to create a “peptide mass fingerprint” (PMF) allowing analysts to identify the source.
Bill Lane, the director of the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory, and Daniel Kirby of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies described the results:
“The PMF from Des destinées de l’ame matched the human reference, and clearly eliminated other common parchment sources, such as sheep, cattle and goat. However, although the PMF was consistent with human, other closely related primates, such as the great apes and gibbons, could not be eliminated because of the lack of necessary references.”
This woman is reduced down to collagen, connective tissue. Her skin contains a body that is not hers, a story she did not write. Does she agree with Arsène Houssaye’s philosophy of the soul after death? For that is now her genetic code, the letters that make up her body, her anatomy, her organs.
This is violence.
censure or criticize severely.
“the papers that had been excoriating him were now lauding him”
damage or remove part of the surface of (the skin).
Censure, remove skin: for this doctor, there was no difference.
express severe disapproval of (someone or something), especially in a formal statement.
Is a book about the soul after death a formal statement?
Think of William Corder, who upon his murder conviction was sentenced to hanging and dissection by doctors, who excoriated skin to bind a book detailing his murder case: the book that censured him for all eternity.
His skin now contained his corpus delicti. It was all he was. There was not supposed to be a question for him of the soul after death. Just this: his crime, his confession, his hanging, for all eternity.
We call the practice of binding books in human skin anthropodermic biblioplegy.
To fasten, make solid — in human skin. Make solid, like a body.
It interests me because of my tattoo resurrection spell, which I’ve written about on this blog over the years. One of those tattoos is a line from my brother’s taped confession:
I am trying to get as honest as I can.
I got it in Deseret Alphabet: the alphabet of the Mormons, of Utah, of testimony. When I got that tattoo, all I had was the police transcript of that phone call–no audio. Deseret Alphabet was my way of making my brother speak his confession.
Speak it from my skin, through my skin: living vellum.
I touch my left hand to my right shoulder, where my Salt Lake Temple doorknob tattoo just finished healing. In a couple of days, I get a rose on the opposite shoulder, just like my brother’s. I’m not getting it in memory of him, but to steal the memory of him getting it. I’ve been stealing his memories: talking to his childhood and high school friends, searching for photos, watching vintage Pontiac GTO ads, mastering the Parachute Landing Fall.
Memories have epigenetic mechanisms, meaning: Every time I steal one of my brother’s memories, I make myself more related to him, genetically.
“We speculate,” wrote Jeremy Jay and David Sweatt in Nature Neuroscience, “that the new understanding of the role of neuro-epigenetic molecular mechanisms in memory formation can answer the long-standing question in neuroscience of why neurons can’t divide.” Neurons, “can’t have their cake and eat it, too.” They can either use methylation to preserve a singular memory, or they can use it to preserve cell-wide identity–a lung cell is not a kidney cell because methylation blots out different genes–but they cannot use it for both.
I am co-opting the machinery of memory for the purpose of reproduction. I am giving birth to my brother from my brain, like Athena popping out of Zeus’ skull. I am letting neurons have their cake and eat it, too.
I have always conceived of these tattoos as a Mutus Liber or alchemical text. Much of the magic has been in the inks & their chemical composition, but also their placement, as I wrote in 2015:
At the same time, my brother’s rose tattoo and the Doomsday clock meet: the end of time is resurrection; resurrection is the end of time.
My arm is a stampless cover.
My arm is a wish.
My arm is a mercury switch.
Literally a mercury switch, all that tainted red ink. In an MRI machine, it would become electric.
While I was getting the tattoo, people asked me what language it is and what it says.
“I’m going to be explaining it for the rest of my life,” I said to my tattoo artist, and he nodded.
Gives a whole new meaning to life sentence, I thought.
With my brother’s words branded into my arm, I will forever be giving him voice. I will forever be translating this secret alphabet. I will forever be moving my brother from one condition to another.
Maybe it’s a kind of redemption. Maybe it’s a kind of justice.
Anthropodermic biblioplegy uses a dead person’s skin to bind a text, but I am using living skin to bind a text to my body.
Except skin, being what it is, is both alive and dead: on the surface of the stratum corneum, dead cells. These are the cells you exfoliate to look fresh and young and alive.
And tattoos are liminal, too: macrophages rush to the scene when a tattoo gun injects the ink, gobbling it up and holding it in place to protect your body from a foreign body (boundaries, boundaries, boundaries). Tattoos are permanent because your body is protecting you. When macrophages die, they release the ink and a new macrophage devours it and holds it in place, like microscopic scribes copying illuminated manuscripts at a monastery.
They are reproducing a body within a body.
And when you die, the hydrogen sulfide that forms in your body reacts with your hemoglobin to form new pigments that blacken the outer layer of skin, obscuring tattoos. The body makes its own ink to obliterate the story that invaded it. A little rub with hydrogen peroxide, much like master forger Mark Hofmann (from whom I learned the art of ink making) with his forgeries, and the tattoo is revealed once again–but only for a little while, before the sulfmethemoglobin and iron sulfide ink blot it out again.
Skin as palimpsest.
The body makes tattoos permanent to protect you in life and obliterates them to protect you in death.
In a way, my project to confess for my brother is not all that different from the murderer’s skin binding a book of his own corpus delicti: it, too, is kind of an epigenetic text of sorts, rewriting the story of a body, giving it a new genetics. What’s different is I chose it. It’s my body, my text, my Mutus Liber.
A doctor did not excoriate skin off my back. And my confession is intended to save a soul, not condemn it: this is the real destiny of the soul, the ones we write ourselves.