First published in 1919, Words in Pain is a collection of letters written from a woman to her doctor and other friends and family following her diagnosis with a terminal illness. Olga Jacoby, young mother of several adopted children, writes with clarity and verve of her love of life and nature, of her rationalist and humanist beliefs, and of her dislike of organised religion.
Jacoby’s doctor was Christian and many of the often kind and humorous letters aim to provide him with a different perspective on life’s meaning. Jacoby can also be sharp and angry however, and so we have a rounded perspective on a woman applying her rational mind to her extraordinary situation. She is always courageous and often conciliatory: “death does not frighten me now. I think it is like taking chloroform; don’t struggle against it, hold the hand of a friend, and it is not half bad with its promise of rest for me and Heaven for you” (p. 5).
The book will be useful to anyone interested in the history of adoption. All her children know they were adopted, and her work to prepare them for her death is impressive. Her love for their individuality is clear: “Charles, the farmer-to-be… has been planning… how he can arrange to make farming pay, without killing ducks, chicken or even field-mice. I do not think he has yet found a satisfactory solution” (p. 25).
It is an intriguing book to read from a disability and chronic illness perspective, too. Her attitudes vary and are sometimes (to a modern reader) very dated, in this and other matters. At one point she demands of her friend: “Do not give in and say ‘I am disabled’. As long as you do not feel disabled you cannot be so” (p. 75). Later, as she becomes more unwell, she welcomes the use of a wheelchair as a way to conserve her energy. She always has absolute ownership of her own life and experiences. She talks about rationing limited energies in a way very reminiscent of the useful spoon theory: “I have had to draw on a stock that a year’s incessant struggle had left small. No wonder that I deal out each ration now with minute carefulness and some fear that capital (this most valuable capital of all) may fail me at last” (p. 168).
The new edition has a helpful update on what happened to the family after Olga’s death from her great-granddaughter Jocelyn Catty, and useful notes from Trevor Moore providing context to the references. Jacoby remains in control and engaged till the last, reading, writing, thinking and debating. A remarkable record of a remarkable woman.
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