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Kelly Gerdts Senior Project Mentor: Lauren LaFauci April 13, 2012

Remembering Waiting and Pain

Gerdts 2 Memory There is a phrase people use to say they have a good memory that I have never really understood: my mind is like a steel trap. But is a steel trap really what you want your brain to be? Imagine it: cold silver teeth snapping closed on the important moments in your life; easy to close, not so easy to reopen. And isnt that the most important thing about memories, getting them back out? To me, a persons memory is more like the stock market. You can put all the money into it that you want; the challenge comes when you try to get it back out. The steel trap of your mind, with its teeth made of strong emotions and medication, mangle the memories entrusted to its care. Often, the most traumatic and painful the memories are the most difficult to remember. Unfortunately, it is those memories that you must remember in order to heal. To put the past behind you, you have to make peace with the memories. Just before finals, during my junior year at Simpson College, I was hospitalized due to dehydration and bowel issues. After many tests and a colonoscopy, a gastroenterologist diagnosed me with Ulcerative Colitis. I was prescribed medication that I will take every day for the rest of my life and I was sent home to recover. By the beginning of the spring semester, I was relatively healthy, my stamina was improving, and I was ready to return to school. All throughout this time in my life, I was doing everything in my power to hold myself together. My parents were always there, always willing to do something for me, and always worried. What I wanted more than anything was to curl into a ball holding the teddy bear I had gotten for my first Christmas but never really got around to naming and cry until I couldnt cry anymore. Cry until I understood why this was happening to me. Cry until everything went back to normal and all of this was just a horrible dream. But I couldnt. This wasnt a dream, and I would never understand what I had done to deserve this. I had to be strong, bury it all, and keep

Gerdts 3 going, if not for me, then for my parents. If I broke down they would never leave me alone, and I desperately needed to be able to pretend that everything would go back to normal. So I pushed the whole thing away. Now I have to remember. My life cant go back to normal. I have to develop a new normal. A normal that consists of taking pills every day, only ever taking acetaminophen for pain and doing everything I can to moderate my stress level to keep from having another episode. However, before I can do that I have to remember and come to terms with everything I pushed away. For me, the key to my future health and happiness is not medication but remembering.

Gerdts 4 The Waiting Place ... for people just waiting. Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No or waiting for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting. Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite or waiting around for Friday night or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil, or a Better Break or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants or a wig with curls, or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting. -- Dr.Seuss Oh the Places Youll Go

It started with a stomachache. I remember coming back to my apartment and crawling into bed. I had just driven two and a half hours from home where I had spent the weekend. I lay there curled on my side facing the cold white wall, listening to the TV and my roommates making dinner in the other room. Barely breathing, hoping the feeling queasy, almost needing to throw up would go away if I lay still enough. Hoping I had just eaten something bad, and if I waited it out it would go away, like the flu. *** I would imagine The Waiting Place looks much like a giant hospital waiting room that leads to a variety of different departments. Windowless, the mostly bare walls painted an indeterminate beige color with one or two cheap prints that are supposed to cheer you up but only serve to make you even more depressed than before. The cheap, torturously uncomfortable

Gerdts 5 furniture scattered throughout the room upholstered in some hideous floral and dark blue pattern. A television in the corner tuned to a 24-hour news station, and outdated magazines scattered on the end tables. In other words, hell. December 2011 saw me in a good number of waiting rooms. *** The first week, I tried to eat normally, stick it out, and make it through. It was just two weeks before finals, and I couldnt afford to be sick. However, I couldnt seem to keep anything I ate in my body long enough for it to provide me with any necessary nutrients. At the end of the first week, I thought I was getting better. I realize now that it only seemed like that because I was eating less and less. That Friday I was feeling better and thought I was on the mend, so I went out for dinner at Jimmy Johns with a couple of friends before we headed over to the Underground. The three of us sat there in the booth, talking, laughing, and singing along when a song we recognized came on. All seemed well; I couldnt finish my BLT but that wasnt surprising considering I hadnt eaten all that much in the last few days. After dinner, we headed over to what used to be the Brenton Student Center. On the way upstairs, I stopped in The Grill to grab a Sprite because my stomach was starting to feel jumpy again. As the night progressed, I began feeling worse and worse. I felt that I would throw up while at the same time I needed to use the bathroom and to top it all off I was developing a headache. Fortunately, I made it through the Underground, but just barely. When we finally got back to our apartment, I lay down on the couch, sipping on my Sprite and hoping it would calm down my stomach. Unfortunately, it just got worse. My

Gerdts 6 stomach was cramping in a way that I had grown to understand meant I needed to get to the bathroom ASAP. And despite it all, I was desperately hungry. *** I was just inside the door of The Waiting Place. I wasnt looking for answers. I was still waiting for this particular illness to run its course, never thinking that it wouldnt be that easy. My roommates and friends were beginning to get worried that this illness was more serious than it seemed, but I refused to accept that idea. They were waiting. I was waiting. Everyone is just waiting. *** As soon as the emergency room doors slid close behind us, I could smell it: the hospital smell. They all smell the same, some weird mixture of cleaning products, hospital food, and sick people. I didnt want to be there, but I was too scared to walk away. That was partly why I brought my roommate, Lindsey, with me; Lindsey with her curly blond hair, poufy red winter coat and her laptop slung across her shoulders. With her there, I knew I wouldnt chicken out because she wouldnt let me. We had lived together since some anonymous roommate matcher had paired us together freshman year. She was just as scared as I was. After one wrong stop, we found the right desk. It was off to the right of the emergency room door, a small little place with ugly dark gray carpet, and a metal detector in front of the door to the rest of the hospital. A metal detector is not exactly a comforting sight when youre in a part of Des Moines youve never visited before. A state trooper sat at a window on the right side of the door, and on the left was the check-in window behind which was seated a nurse wearing dusky rose scrubs and her dark hair in a ponytail.

Gerdts 7 As we approached the nurses window, Lindsey hung back a little, waiting to sit down until we knew what was going to happen next. I explained that I had been feeling sick for going on two weeks now and since all the offices in Indianola were full or closed, I was hoping to see a doctor. She handed me a clipboard with the usual medical paperwork to fill out: name, birthday, emergency contact, medical history. There wasnt much, just my tonsils out when I was six and stitches when I was eight. Are you currently on any medication? Are you experiencing any of these symptoms? Check all that apply. *** I shuffled a little deeper into The Waiting Place, moving from the waiting it out department to professional help. I wasnt alone, my roommates and parents were there too. Now, we werent waiting for whatever this was to run its course, but waiting for the suggestions made by medical professionals to take hold. The bag of fluids I had received at Iowa Lutheran Hospital before being discharged had been very helpful. I was eating toast, drinking my lemonade-flavored Gatorade, and my roommates were hoping that I was finally on the mend. Even then: everyone is just waiting. *** Lindsey called my mother on Monday, two days after that first trip to the hospital. I had made it through Saturday night and all of Sunday, sipping on lemonade Gatorade, munching on buttered white toast, and working furiously on the final paper and class syllabus for my Representative American Writers I class. I finished it Sunday night in what my mom calls an act of God, a miracle really. On Monday, I woke up early and couldnt get back to sleep. I was running low on Gatorade, so I went to Walmart to get some more, which was a major achievement considering I had barely eaten in two weeks. By the time Lindsey woke up, I had

Gerdts 8 made it back to our apartment. Unfortunately, I was also throwing up the lemonade-flavored Gatorade I had just bought. I went back to sleep and Lindsey went to the library where she called my mother who in turn called Rita Audlehelm, the school nurse. It was her call that woke me up; she wanted to come to my apartment and make sure I was ok. My parents were on their way to Indianola to take me home. I slept through most of the ride and when we got home, I went straight to bed. My mother was planning to take me to the Mercy clinic in Wilton. The next morning held another waiting room. When they called my name, my mother and I followed the nurse to an examining room, like every other doctors examining room on the planet. There was an exam table in the middle of the room, the odd slippery blue gray padding covered by a sheet of white paper, cabinets on the wall next to the door, and medical prevention posters on the walls. I was sitting, shoulders slumped, on the crinkly paper not caring that my slip-on shoes were just barely hanging onto the tips of my toes, when Physician Assistant Blouse came in. Hes a small older man with gray hair, glasses, and cold hands. He asked me what was going on and I had to explain, again. It was hard, I still had no frame of reference to compare the feelings to and the retellings werent making it any easier. Within minutes of eating something, my stomach would begin to cramp and I would have to rush to the bathroom. I couldnt understand how food could get through my body so fast. I obviously wasnt absorbing the nutrients I needed. After a couple of clarifying questions, Blouse asked me to lie back while he applied pressure to my abdomen to check that I hadnt ruptured any vital organs. Then, he prescribed a medication that would keep me from throwing up, hoping it would give my body time to soak up some nutrients so it could heal. It was then that Blouse made a comment that stuck with me. He

Gerdts 9 said that I looked like I was on my final reserves of energy, that without help I couldnt keep going much longer. He was right. It finally hit me how scary my situation truly was. *** That night, my parents and I realized that waiting for this illness to run its course was no longer an option. Clearly, the problem was not going to be fixed with a bag of fluids and Imodium or the medication prescribed by PA Blouse. We were moving to the deepest part of The Waiting Place. Furthest from any exit was the hospital stay and medical intervention department. My parents and I were waiting for answers, the nurses were waiting for directions, and the doctors were waiting for results. Everyone is just waiting. *** When we arrived at the hospital, my dad dropped my mom and me off at the emergency room entrance, and went to park the car. When we got to the check-in counter, the nurses were busy with someone else so we sat down to wait. I was so tired. My body felt slow and heavy, but at the same time, it was so very empty. I was so used to the hunger gnawing at my stomach that my mind barely registered the feeling. I was running out of energy fast and I was grateful to the people at the check-in desk for providing me a distraction from the bone-deep weariness I was feeling. There was a man standing at the counter in a green army jacket, like something youd get from an army surplus store. He was disheveled, his hair sticking up and grimy looking. A police officer had brought him in to be committed for a night so he would have somewhere to sleep. The nurse at the counter was getting frustrated with him. As she spoke, her words became sharper and clearer. As if changing the way she spoke would allow the words to tear into his understanding. The man wanted to have a cigarette before he went into the main part of the

Gerdts 10 hospital. The nurse was trying to explain to him that he could not smoke on hospital grounds, and if he left, they would have to go through the lengthy admittance process all over again when he came back. Why didnt the man just leave? He knew he could; the nurse told him. He was admitting himself so he was free to leave if he wanted to. Was he afraid his chance for a warm bed would disappear if he walked out that door? Which need was stronger, the need for shelter or the need for nicotine? Some small part of me was wondering about this. The rest was just hoping he would decide soon. I just wanted to get this over with so I could sleep. He finally made his decision and told the nurse to help this young lady, that would be me, and walked out of those giant sliding glass doors. It was finally my turn. I shuffled up to the desk with my parents and they filled the nurse in while I leaned against the desk to hold myself up. I was to the point where even standing took more energy than I could really spare. I made it through all the paperwork, thinking to myself that I have filled out enough medical paperwork in my life that I should be in their system somewhere, obviously not. They took us to an examining room and proceeded to ask me the same questions that I had already answered at least twice that day. Thats when my mom pulled out the calendar. I thought I was past the point of caring about anything enough to be embarrassed. I was wrong. It was one of those calendars you can get from any word processing program. She proceeded to point out all of the pertinent dates she had written in to the ER doctor working that late night shift. Normally I appreciate visual aids, but I soon discovered that I dont look upon them as favorably when they pertain to my bowel movements. After that, the doctor and nurses wanted samples of just about every bodily fluid I possess which, let me tell you, can be difficult when you havent eaten a real meal in days.

Gerdts 11 When the blood tests came back, my white blood count was low. I was dehydrated and in need of an IV. Unfortunately, being in the emergency room at midnight means that the most experienced nurses are not on hand to put in that IV. I was laying half curled up on the bed/examining table pushed against the wall across from the door in the small colorless examining room. My parents were in chairs against the right wall, and the left wall was taken up by cabinets and a counter. The guy who came in to put in my IV was probably around my age and bore a striking resemblance to Ben Affleck. He was wearing a dark blue polo shirt with an EMT logo rather than the scrubs you would normally expect to see on someone putting in an IV. I should have realized then that he was not the medial professional I was expecting. I do not like needles in the best of circumstances. Ive made an art of avoiding flu shots, and the last thing I wanted was another person sticking another needle in my arm. He sat on a stool in front of me and tied the rubber strap around the upper part of my right arm. Ive never been a huge believer in the attractiveness of Ben Affleck, but even through my hunger and tiredness, I recognized this guys good looks. I was really wishing that I had taken a shower that morning. As I was considering this, he was searching for a decent vein to poke that needle into, a difficult task considering my level of dehydration. He finally found one right in the crook of my elbow. To this day, I think that was a copout. He couldnt find even one other vein in my entire arm for an IV? He got the needle into my arm but didnt quite get the part the IV plugs into connected in time. The gateway to my vein was open and the blood was rushing to be free. He finally got the IV connected and the needle taped in place. I was incredibly dehydrated; they had the machine wide-open, pumping liquid into my veins as fast as possible. I could feel the chill moving up my arm, through my shoulder and into the rest of my body. The

Gerdts 12 Ben Affleck lookalike cleaned up my arm the best he could and brought me a clean blanket, but he couldnt do anything about the sheet. Luckily, the placement of the blanket had kept the majority of the blood leakage off the bed. It was at this point that it was decided that I needed an MRI scan. At least I think thats what it was. They gave me two Styrofoam glasses of special dye that would allow them to see my intestines, mixed with warm flat Sprite. It was disgusting. It was horribly bitter stuff and the sprite, rather than masking the taste, made it worse with that distinct taste of flat soda. The nurse told me to drink as much as I could without getting sick. After two hours, I still hadnt finished both cups. The medical professionals decided that, given how long it had taken to drink the first glass and a half, the dye had plenty of time to make its way through my system. They had me take off any metal I was wearing, all I had were my glasses, and climb on a gurney. The ride through the hallways may be a fun experience when youre healthy, but that night it was just cold. At least when youre walking your body is doing something and creating a little bit of heat. When we got to the MRI room, I had to move to a gurney that would slide into the machine. The nurse told me to lie perfectly still as the bed made slow but steady progress toward the big open hole and into the machine. I lay there for a couple minutes with the machine whirring and clicking around me before I began to slide slowly back out. When I was completely out, I stayed still, waiting for the nurse to tell me what was going to happen next. The return gurney ride was just as cold. My parents were still in that tiny emergency examining room where we continued to wait until one of the on-call doctors came to talk to us. I cant remember what he looked like. By this time, it was four in the morning and we were all tired. I do remember that he had a very thick accent, Middle Eastern, African, something I was having a hard time understanding. However, I did understand that the doctor had decided I

Gerdts 13 should be admitted. A nurse would be taking us to a room on the fifth floor soon. I was incredibly grateful. Finally, I would be able to sleep. *** Wednesday was a day of waiting, so much waiting that I was just waiting for the waiting to end. Deep in The Waiting Place, we had finally found someone to tell us what was going on. Dr. Davidson, the gastroenterologist assigned to my case, had come to ask us a few questions about our extended familys health history, and told us a colonoscopy had been scheduled for the next day. That procedure is not really something a person looks forward to, but I was all for it if the procedure would allow Dr. Davidson to tell me what was happening with my body. So we waited some more while my friends waited for updates, the nurses waited for me to finish drinking the colonoscopy prep stuff, and I waited for it all to be over. Thats the way hospitals are: everyone is just waiting. *** That night my boyfriend, Cameron, came to see me. We graduated from high school together, had in fact gone to school together since kindergarten. At this point, we had only been dating for about a month and a half, though we had really only spent a couple weekends together because he was still living in Durant and I was at school. I admit it was a little awkward. I had told my mother we were dating, but they had never really seen us together. He brought a bouquet of beautiful peach roses and our friend Joe with him. Ironically, a similar scene had occurred just that summer, except Joe was the one in the hospital bed and I was the one visiting with Cameron. They came in and sat on the couch placed under the window, both of them in their jeans, t-shirts, and zip up hoodies. Cameron with his faded red hair in need of a trimming and Joe with his shaggy blond hair and flat-billed hat.

Gerdts 14 By that time, I had already gone through multiple IV bags of fluid. After the first two or three they were able to slow down the input so they werent pouring liquid into my blood stream as fast as they possibly could. I had even managed to eat some broth. I was so hungry that it actually tasted good, nice and hot, soothing to my throat and a little salty. I was feeling better, even though it had been more than 24 hours since my last shower and I felt rather gross in my ugly, open backed hospital gown. Having Cameron and Joe there helped. My parents left us to hang out in my room while they went to one of the waiting rooms to take advantage of the free wireless Internet. While we talked, Cameron, Joe, and I compiled a list of all restaurants and things we were going to eat when I was feeling better: deep-dish, Canadian bacon pizza from Happy Joes; chicken tacos and potato ols from Taco Johns; a big, juicy cheeseburger from Red Robin; cheesy beef enchiladas topped with lettuce and tomatoes from Rudys. The list just kept going, making them hungry and my mouth water. Just before they arrived, the nurse had stopped by to drop off the stuff that I had to drink before I had my colonoscopy. This stuff was just as bad as the Sprite and ink I had to drink the night before, but in a different way. The nurse said this would taste like Sprite too. Either she had never tasted this stuff in her life, or she was a huge liar. It tasted nothing like Sprite, except that it was incredibly lemony, every time I took a drink I would flinch, and make that involuntary sour face as if I was eating a Shocktart. Eventually Cameron and Joe had to leave. There isnt much to talk about when youre sitting in a hospital bed, feeling like crap, and drinking some of the most disgusting stuff you have ever tasted in your life. When they were gone, I had nothing left to distract me from the taste.

Gerdts 15 *** Finally, we were on our way out of The Waiting Place. The colonoscopy had shown evidence of both Crohns disease and Ulcerative Colitis, two similar forms of Inflammatory Bowl Disease. Dr. Davidson said that, at this stage, it was not important to know which one it was, and that a good number of people diagnosed never knew which one they had. The waiting to find out what was wrong with me was over. I knew what it was and had a prescription to keep my white blood cells from attacking my colon. Now my family, friends, boyfriend, and I were all just waiting for my body to heal, and my life to return to normal. Everyone is just waiting. *** Even now, over a year and a half later, Im not completely out of The Waiting Place. Im still sitting on the stoop, unwilling to go in, but unable to leave. I have recovered from my time in the hospital. My medication is working well and my diet hasnt been restricted, but the threat is still there. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Get too stressed for too long, or forget to take my pills one too many times, and I could end up back where I was last December. The era of it not mattering if I forgot to eat is over, and a new era in which my purse always sounds like a maraca has begun. Maybe someday, I will be sure enough in the state of my health that it no longer matters. Maybe someday, I will be able to get off the stoop of The Waiting Place and walk away. Until then, everyone is just waiting.

Gerdts 16 The Pain Scale How would you rate your pain on a scale from one to ten? Its a common question, one that gets asked every time someone goes to the doctor. How else are you supposed to describe and rate your pain? We can hardly expect nurses and doctors to listen to things like it feels someone is jabbing a red hot poker through my skin or my head feels like its slowly building pressure and if it doesnt go away my head will explode every day at work. Their jobs are hard enough already. The pain scale necessary, humane even. During my sophomore year of college, I took a nonfiction writing class. In that class, our textbook was a collection of nonfiction short stories called the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. Of the 20 or so stories I read that semester, there is only one that really stuck with me. Its called The Pain Scale written by Eula Biss. Throughout my stay in the hospital and during my various doctor visits after that, whenever someone asks me to rate my pain, I think about this story. There is another, silent question that goes hand in hand with being asked to rate your pain. Is this normal? No one wants his or her pain to be extraordinary. Unlike in life, no one wants their pain to be outstanding. Biss said, I understand the desire to be average only when I am in pain. To be normal is to be okay in a fundamental way to be chosen numerically by God (35). To be unique in your pain is a scary thing. Not only do you know that you are alone, but there is always the chance that the abnormality of your pain will mean that no one will be able to cure it. As Biss said, to be normal is to be okay, and she is right. Just knowing that someone has suffered your pain can make everything more manageable; after all, misery loves company.

Gerdts 17 Unfortunately, this very desire to be normal can skew the results. In our longing for normalcy, we often rate pain in the middle of the scale. So is the middle of everyones scale the same? Sure, numerically, everyone is a five, but what about what those people are actually feeling? We dont know. As much as everyone wants to be alike in their pain, they arent. Pain is an incredibly subjective thing. What one-person rates as a seven may only be a four to someone else. An important factor in this is imagination. If zero is no pain and ten is the worst pain imaginable, the bigger your imagination, the more space you have to find where your pain fits on the scale. This idea of your pain scale being relative to the scope of your imagination was one of the things I discovered during my time in the hospital last December. I decided that rating your pain on a numerical scale is too dependent on the situation to be efficient. It was also then that I discovered something else. The more pain Im in, the more pain I can imagine. One of the first things the nurses in the hospital asked me was at what number on the pain scale would I ask for pain medication. I, of course, responded with a five or six. I have a tendency to answer pain scale questions in ranges rather than concrete numbers. By that time, I had been in moderate pain for almost two weeks, a combination of dehydration, weariness, hunger, and lying on the couch for continuous hours. It was hard to remember what normal felt like, and therefore it was difficult to wrap my mind around the concept of a zero or one on the pain scale. The next evening I had a terrible headache. I dont remember much about it; the fear and the pain make it somewhat difficult to remember that particular period of time. What I do remember is thinking that if it didnt end soon I was going to lose my mind. Short, intense pain I can handle. Its the mild, drawn out, constant pain thats the real killer. When a nurse stopped in

Gerdts 18 to check on me, I told him that I had a headache. He, of course, asked me to rate my pain. This is where my imagination kicked in. When I thought of my headache in comparison to the number 10, worst pain imaginable it was really not very bad. As a result, I gave it a four. Unfortunately, while I was considering what ranking to give, I forgot that my pain needed to be at least a five in order to receive painkillers. Therefore, to the nurses, ranking my headache as a four meant I was not in need of any pain medicine. Now, when responding to pain scale questions, I try to consider both past and present pain in an attempt to make my answers as consistent as possible. The issue of consistency raises yet another question. If the way one-person rates his or her pain differs from situation to situation, how does that persons pain ratings compare to anothers pain rating? It doesnt, and they are not meant to. The pain scale can only act as a reference for one person. Biss reflected well on this issue: Youre not meant to be rating world suffering, my friend in Honduras advises. This scale applies to you and your experience. At first, this thought is tremendously relieving. It unburdens me of factoring the continent of Africa into my calculations. But the reality that my nerves alone feel my pain is terrifying. I hate the knowledge that I am isolated in this skin alone with my pain and my own fallibility. (33)

Unfortunately, this comes right back to the terrifying isolation of pain. No one else will truly understand what you are feeling. No one can climb into your skin and borrow your nerve endings. You are truly alone in your skin, alone in your pain, alone in the proof of your suffering.

Gerdts 19 However, despite the isolation of pain, it is important to our lives. The pain scale starts with zero, but is it even possible to have no pain? I try to think back through the last 22 years of my life to a time when I felt no pain. I come up blank. Then I think, well of course I dont, feeling nothing is not memorable. And not all pain is bad pain. Scratching an itch, and stretching your muscles are both low-grade pains that are relieving rather than painful. Which reminds me of a something Biss said, If no pain is possible, then, another question is no pain desirable ( 28)? I think not. While constant pain is definitely undesirable, being completely without pain would be very dull. Without the lows, the highs can be very hard to appreciate. Ive never liked pain scales, but I understand them. Ive never liked pain, but now I understand that too. As lonely and scary as pain can be, I know that it will end. And when I am healthy and whole I will be able to appreciate the good times all the more because of the pain, because I know that things could be worse.

Gerdts 20 Senior Project Works Cited/Consulted Biss, Eula. The Pain Scale. Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to the present. Ed. Lex Williford and Michael Martone. New York: Touchstone, 2007. 28-42. Print. Fox, Michael J. Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist. New York: Hyperion eBook, 2009. eBook. Seuss, Dr.. Oh the Places Youll Go. New York: Random House, 1990. PDF file. Williams, Terry Tempest. Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. New York: Vintage Books, 1992. Print.

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