When Luce Brett 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, dirty and shocked. How the hell had she ended up there, the youngest woman in the waiting room at the incontinence clinic?
PMSL is her story. A heartfelt, moving and deeply personal account of the decade that followed, told with incredible honesty and wit. Luce has been at the sharp end of a medical issue that affects 1 in 3 women but that remains shrouded in taboo and social stigma. It’s sincere, raw and funny – but crucially it is the first memoir to look at incontinence, smashing the stigma and looking at what anyone affected can do to navigate their way through the wet-knickered wilderness.
1 in 3 women. Think about that for a moment. That is a massive number of women affected, and yet this is the FIRST book I have come across about this issue. The stigma of incontinence is so pervasive that it is just not talked about. I’m far from immune from the taboo: I was worried posting this review that people might see it and think “Oh God, is Ellie incontinent?! Why’s she reading that book?” I fall into the trap of making jokes, of the wry comments about being nearly forty and having had two babies so of course, as I got Luce to write in my dedication when I won this book on Twitter from the lovely Scott Pack, my pelvic floor is not what it was. Ha ha, we all get it. But those in-jokes, which women smile knowingly at, possibly delighting in making the menfolk uncomfortable, are about as far as the discussion goes. Until this brilliant book.
Luce’s story is by turns heart-breaking, horrifying, funny, fierce, and above all, really, really well-told. She has been through so much, and she does not shy away from any of it here: the feelings, the pain, the procedures and operations, everything is laid out for us. Her voice is so strong; her personality leaps off every page: burning intelligence, searing honesty, absolutely filthy humour and plenty of swearing. The sense of connection with the reader is so powerful and intimate: the trust she places in us by sharing her story creates a bond. It feels far more like chatting with a mate than reading a medical memoir.
Luce is an incredibly talented writer. The journey she goes on as she negotiates her way through the traumatic, distressing world of incontinence is described through vivid flashbacks, and her personal efforts to reconstruct her story function as a kind of anchor through the mayhem and chaos of such difficult times. The complexity of her story is handled with skill and nuance – she interrogates herself with sharp intelligence and deep self-knowledge as the narrative progresses. She writes so well about the realities of depression and PTSD – even if you have been fortunate enough never to have experienced any of the medical problems that this book describes, you should read it to understand better what it is to suffer from mental health issues. So much in this book hit a nerve with me, from her fury at the acceptance of post-partum injuries as just part of a woman’s lot, to her frustration at the deafening wall of silence surrounding so many ‘women’s issues’. This book definitely ignited my ‘fem rage,’ to borrow a phrase from Luce: to the point where as I ranted to my lovely husband about the sheer anger I felt for Luce and for all of us, he cowered (sensibly) under the duvet.
This book is so powerful. It has reminded me of so many times in my life when I felt utterly bewildered and alone: when I was a young woman desperately trying to find a form of birth control that didn’t send me totally loopy; when I was finally diagnosed with depression aged 30 and looked back over the wasted years of thinking I was just broken beyond repair; when, about 2 weeks after giving birth to my daughter, I lay next to her on my bed, both of us on toddler pee pads having ‘nappy free time,’ my stitches possibly infected but too scared to call the midwife; miscarrying in the bath tub at 11 weeks; three months after my second baby being convinced that I’d have to wear pads forever as I leaked every time I coughed. All of these experiences made me feel helpless, useless, on the outside of some great secret about ‘how to be a woman’ that no one was letting me in on.
And what helped, and still helps, is TALKING ABOUT IT. This is what Luce knows, this is what she is doing here, she is busting open the conversation. Progress is being made in so many areas because women are speaking up and refusing to let us all suffer in silence, and this is an absolutely vital book, because it starts a conversation about a subject that seems beyond words, and lets the all-important dialogue begin. In the book, Luce talks about not wanting to be one of ‘those women’ – ‘that woman’ who can’t control her bladder, who we pity and perhaps even fear because we see a future we don’t want to contemplate. For me, Luce Brett is one of ‘those women’ in an entirely different sense: she is one of those incredible women who are changing the landscape and pushing boundaries for future generations. I am not exaggerating when I say this book could be transformative for anyone who has been affected by the issue of incontinence, or birth trauma, or PND or PTSD, or even who has a completely different issue they feel they can’t talk about. Luce makes the point in the book that she does not consider herself brave, so instead, I will praise her generosity, and above all her kindness – it is clear from everything she writes that she is absolutely desperate to spare others the same experience of not being able to talk or get help: that is her mission, and as well as her story, the resources at the back of the book are invaluable for this.
I don’t usually finish a book and develop an action plan, but this is not a typical book. So, to conclude, this is what I am going to do after reading PMSL:
- Bloody well do my kegels
- See GP if I don’t notice an improvement
- TALK about the issues that have affected me and those I care about
- LISTEN to anyone who wants/needs to talk about their issues
As to who I would recommend this book to, the short answer is: everyone. This conversation mustn’t be tucked into a corner, filed under ‘women’s issues’ or reserved only for those suffering from incontinence right now. This deserves to be a huge conversation, and Luce’s book is a fiercely brilliant introduction.
PMSL is published by Bloomsbury and is available to purchase here.