For readers of Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire and Porochista Khakpour’s Sick, this exquisitely wrought debut memoir recounts a lifelong struggle with chronic pain and endometriosis, while speaking more broadly to anyone who’s been told “it’s all in your head”
In Catholic grade school, Emma Bolden has a strange experience with a teacher that unleashes a short-lived, persistent coughing spell—something the medical establishment will later use against her as she struggles through chronic pain and fainting spells that coincide with her menstrual cycle.
In The Tiger and the Cage, Bolden uses her own experience as the starting point for a journey through the institutional misogyny of Western medicine—from a history of labeling women “hysterical” and parading them as curiosities to a lack of information on causes or cures for endometriosis, despite more than a century of documented cases. Recounting botched surgeries and dire side effects from pharmaceuticals affecting her and countless others, Bolden speaks to the ways people are often failed by the official narratives of institutions meant to protect them.
Bolden also interrogates a narrative commonly imposed on menstruating bodies: the expected story arc of marriage and children. She interrogates her body as a painful site she must mentally escape and a countdown she hopes to beat by having a child before a hysterectomy. Only later does she find language and acceptance for her asexality and the life she needs to lead. Through all its gripping, devastating, and beautiful threads, The Tiger and the Cage says what Bolden and so many like her have needed to hear: I see you, and I believe you.
Praise for The Tiger and the Cage
“In The Tiger and the Cage, the call is coming from inside the house—or, rather, from inside the body. In the beautiful prose of a poet, Emma Bolden confronts the patriarchal foundation of the institutions that make our lives what they are: education, religion, medicine. If patriarchy—and frankly, misogyny—is part of medical ‘care,’ then via each surgeon’s scalpel and each prescribed medication, it is also inside us. The Tiger and the Cage opened my eyes, enraged me, and left me in awe of Bolden’s enormous talent as a writer, intelligence as a critic, and courage as a survivor.” —Maggie Smith, author of Goldenrod and Keep Moving
“A harrowing portrait of endurance and grief and resilience. With raw honesty and exacting detail, Bolden tells an intimate story while exploring the demands our oppressive culture places on women—our supposed hopes and dreams, our supposed desires and fears, and most poignantly of all the expectations on our bodies, what they should do and how they should behave. It is part damning critique of our male-dominated medical institutions and, quietly, a loving tribute to a mother-daughter bond.” —Julianna Baggott, author of The Seventh Book of Wonders
“Layer by shimmering layer, Emma Bolden transforms the story of her body into the story of a search for truth. The Tiger and the Cage elegantly interrogates narratives of gender, pain, sexuality, and family to reveal the freedom underneath.” —Angela Chen, author of Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex
“In brief, lyrical, and powerful essays, Emma Bolden unleashes her story of endometriosis, and the misogyny she endured at the hands of the medical establishment, interwoven with stories of a supportive and loving Southern upbringing. The Tiger and the Cage is a torrent of feeling. It is a left-hook to the jaw to anyone learning for the first time about the neglectful ways women are often treated when their bodies need help. It is a soft, supportive whisper to those of us who know it too well. May it find its way into the hands of doctors and those in training, and their patients, too, who will find a voice in this book, one speaking with clarity and purpose, that affirms their own experiences.” —Chantel Acevedo, author of The Distant Marvels
“Emma Bolden’s The Tiger and the Cage is a memoir written as an investigation, a dive into what it means to be a woman caught in a medical establishment that doesn’t listen to women. I read this book in a fury. Bolden’s imagery is stark and vivid, and the prose moves in a spiral, encircling her pain, her confusion, and her strength. This book will make you laugh, cry, scream, and bleach your hair while you sing along loudly to Tori Amos. I am so grateful The Tiger and the Cage exists and so grateful for Emma Bolden’s generosity.” —Emme Lund, author of The Boy With a Bird in His Chest
“This philosophical, funny, and beautiful memoir is both a work of art and a deep conversation about the rift between mind and body, those two great friends, and rivals, handcuffed together forever. Well-armed with a genuine Greek chorus, a truly excellent and private sense of humor, and incredible gifts for metaphor, Emma Bolden opens the vault for the reader into the true experience of how it feels to both reckon daily with a ravaging illness and also to carry on and make the most of one’s life.
If literature is the great river that runs alongside life, interpreting it, then this book is that river—[it] is deep and vigorous and vital, flashing with transcendence, thinking so richly about the human body, wondering at its mortality and fragility with love and humor and patience and strength.” —Rebecca Lee, author of Bobcat and Other Stories