Book Review: Frida's Bed by Slavenka Drakulic
Suffering from acute chronic pain is like being eaten alive from the inside out by an unseen parasite or disease. While on the surface the body looks fine, underneath the physical, mental, and emotional core is gradually being hollowed out. Resources normally committed to taking care of life as most people know it are turned inward in an effort to keep the pain at bay. Humans don't have an inexhaustible store of energy and gradually the will and ability to resist the pain erodes and it will continue to increase incrementally unless the cause is rooted out and eliminated.
When you suffer from chronic pain you begin to despise the body that causes you so much suffering and you long to escape from it in any way possible. Drugs are the usual means for most people to leave their bodies when the pain becomes too much to handle. Morphine, Demerol, and the rest of the narcotics become close allies and dear friends and are often the only ones who truly understand the need to escape. Some people have the ability to find an external focus that they can utilize as a means of escaping the pain. It becomes a point outside of their body where their awareness can reside temporarily giving them respite from the creature eating away at them.
As a writer and a chronic pain sufferer I know from experience that the times I'm most pain free are those moments when I'm able to lose myself in whatever story or article that I'm writing. Even the drugs I take can't match the relief offered by being able to truly escape my body into the world that's being created on the page. While you can almost say the pain is feeding the creativity because of the manner in which it motivates the escape, there does come a point where the pain is too great for that escape. The frustration of having to surrender those moments of freedom to the reality of the body's prison is nothing compared to the fear that you might never manage the escape again.
Mexican artist Frida Kahlo spent almost her entire life suffering from chronic pain. From the time she contracted Polio as a child to the end of her life her body was wracked with physical pain as a result of the disease and a horrific traffic accident she was involved in as a teenager. During her life time she underwent thirty plus operations as doctors struggled to literally keep her body from falling apart. Gangrene would gradually take the toes of one foot and then her leg as if the pain decided to actually eat her alive.
In Drakulic Slavenka's latest book, Frida's Bed, published by Penguin Canada, she imagines Frida in her last days lying in bed recounting her life. As Frida's story is laid out for us, we learn how pain and her illnesses defined everything in her life from her work to her interpersonal relationships. It's not a pretty picture that Drakulic draws for us, but there is a beauty in it that goes beyond mere aesthetics; the beauty of strength of will, courage, and self-awareness.
As we travel with Frida we realize two things dominated her adult life, and that they were inextricably intertwined; her relationship with her husband, fellow Mexican artist Diego Rivera, and her painting. Not only were both the deepest loves of her life, they were also both defined in her mind by her condition. Not only was painting a means for her to escape the confines of a body that wracked her with pain and would at times keep her bedridden, but it allowed her to express the pain (physical, emotional, and mental) that continually beset her. She painted scenes depicting her body in various stages of decomposition, images that showed both the external smooth surface she presented to the public and the devastated reality that lay beneath the placid exterior, and others which depicted her continual struggle to live.
While her pain and injuries might have inspired her art, they also destroyed her self-confidence as a woman, as an object of desire. Diego Rivera was a womanizer who had already been married twice before he and Frida came together, and each of his previous marriages had ended because of his infidelity. Frida knew she couldn't compete with the physical attractions of the other women in Diego's life, the models for his work and the socialites who threw themselves at his feet, so she created for herself an exotic character based on the things that Diego liked. It was for him that she began wearing the traditional peasant clothing and pre-Colombian jewellery that she is now so famous for, in the hopes that by doing so she would make herself different enough from all the others that he wouldn't stray.
It wasn't until he had an affair with her younger sister that she fully realized what she had sacrificed for him and that no matter what she did it wouldn't matter anyway. She had sacrificed her art and painting in order to please him and be his inspiration. Although she tried to convince herself otherwise, she was devastated by his continual infidelities. She was forced to redefine their relationship in her head based on what she could offer him as a woman. Which is why in her latter work you see Diego depicted as a small child being comforted by the figure of Frida the mother. This compromise allowed her to fool herself into believing that she still played a significant role in his life.
What's amazing about Frida's Bed is how amazingly accurate Slovenka Drakulic is in depicting a life spent in pain and it's consequences. From there she has done an equally incredible job of grafting the life and thoughts of Frida Kahlo onto that depiction. With a narrative that moves from first person to third person and back again some might find difficulties in following the flow of the book, but once you get into it, it becomes easy to discern the difference between the observer and the observations.
The journey Drakulic takes us on is not an easy one to travel as it goes into the heart of an anguished soul. Yet at the same time it is a remarkably uplifting experience as we are able to experience the power of the creative spirit and where it can carry a person. Simultaneously we are taken inside the mind of Frida Kahlo and given a perspective on her life that I don't think anyone else has ever offered. Now some might disagree with the interpretation offered by the author because it flies in the face of the strong and independent female artist image that has sprung up around Frida in recent years. Yet taken in the context of someone suffering from chronic pain I find it hard to dispute her analysis.
Of course any attempt to interpret someone's thought patterns is pure conjecture, but from personal experience I can only concur with the conclusions Ms. Drakulic has drawn about Frida's state of mind. When you feel like your own body has betrayed you, which is how you fell the majority of the time when you suffer form chronic pain, your sense of self is depreciated in ways that it is difficult to comprehend. The depiction of Frida offered by Frida's Bed is every bit as valid, if probably not more so, than any of the others offered up these days.
For those people who genuinely appreciate the art of Frida Kalho Frida's Bed offers insights into her work and life that will give you an even deeper understanding of what drove her to create in the first place. It's not often we are given such a clear and accurate look into the mind of one of the world's great artists, but this book does just that.