Abreast of Things

By Hazel Katherine Larkin

I am Autoethnographer: Most of my published, and performed, works to date have been autobiographical or informed by discussions with others who have similar histories to myself. As an Autoethnographer, I need to insert myself into my research. That is not just valid, it is required (Holman Jones et al, 2013). Or, as Ellis et al (2011) put it: 

When researchers do autoethnography, they retrospectively and selectively write about epiphanies that stem from, or are made possible by, being part of a culture and/or by possessing a particular cultural identity.

Autoethnography is a method of research that describes and analyses (graphy), personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experiences (ethno) (Ellis et al, 2011).   Autoethnography is an approach to research that puts the self at the centre of cultural analysis. This method produces meaningful, accessible, and evocative research grounded in personal experience. It is research that sensitises those to whom it is disseminated, and by whom it is consumed (readers, and other audiences) to issues of identity politics; to experiences shrouded in silence; and to forms of representation that deepen our capacity to empathize with people who are different from us (Ellis & Bochner, 2000). Or, as Chang (2008, p.43) asserts autoethnography ‘transcends mere narration of self to engage in cultural analysis and interpretation’. Autoethnography also demands that we ‘observe ourselves observing’ (Holman Jones, Adams, and Ellis 2013, p10)

Writing personal stories makes ‘witnessing’ possible (Denzin, 2004; Ellis and Bochner, 2006). It provides participants and readers with the opportunity to observe and testify on behalf of an event, problem, or experience (Greenspan, 1998; Rogers, 2004), and allows a researcher to identify other problems that are cloaked in secrecy (Goodall, 2006), such as the subject of this article.


Breasts are more controversial than perhaps they should be. Males and females are born with the same breast tissue, ducts, and nipples. It is only when puberty arrives that hormones prompt the physical changes that take place in female breasts. These changes include the laying down of fatty tissue to enlarge the size of the breasts. Hormonal changes are also responsible for the increase in prolactin, which triggers the production of milk. 

Contemporary Western cultures code female breasts as erotic and there are many theories surrounding why – including suggestions that they are sexually appealing on account of the fact that they are a result of sex hormones and sexual development. 

My Breasts

I have magnificent breasts. I know I’m probably not supposed to say that; it’s probably immodest to say so, but it’s true. If you could see them, you’d realise how fabulous they are! I am delighted to be able to say so. I am delighted to be able to delight in them. For a long time, I absolutely did not.

The first tattoo I got, aged seventeen, was on my breast. It has not aged well, but I would not have it removed, or touched up (not in the inking sense, anyway). Done in black, it is a Celtic knot and is now a bit droopier – and slightly more elongated – than it was when I was a teenager. I got this tattoo as a gift to myself. The idea, then, was that it would detract attention from the scars on my breasts. I like to think my ploy worked, but there is always a possibility that, actually, I just have really good healing skin. Perhaps if I had just waited a few years, the scars would have faded sufficiently to render the rendering of the tattoo unnecessary.  

The scars are still there, but they are not as visible as they might otherwise be. Sometimes, I rush to fix something when holding firm would have yielded the same – if not better– results. 

That is a legacy, I suppose, of being a ‘fixer’: As a ‘fixer,’ I was raised to solve everyone’s problems, raised to believe that inaction is passivity; that inaction is indecision; that inaction is a lack of will or a lack of caring: When–sometimes–inaction is just inaction. Sometimes holding firm and waiting for the result is the result. Or, at the very least, is the best approach. 

Just as the tattoo is a ‘fix’; so, too, were the scars themselves. They are the result of self-harming. Now, often ahead of my time, I was a self-harmer before the phrase was even in use. The word used back in the 1980s, and early 1990s, was ‘cutter.’ And – my goodness! – did I apply myself to living up to that title. My favourite target was my breasts – the most obvious (and by that, I mean the most visible) ‘cause,’ to my young mind, of my abuse. 

Part of me thought that if I could just perform a DIY mastectomy, no one would ever sexually assault me or rape me again. For a start, I hoped that my two elder brothers would ignore me because I would no longer be visibly different; I would no longer be female enough for them to be interested. Self-harming – cutting – had a number of advantages: Others have documented the psychic relief of cutting a piece of flesh; the physical hurt giving relief to the psychic pain. There is a satisfaction to being able to point at a wound and say, ‘that’s why I’m hurting–that’s the source of the hurt.’ Even though it is not. 

For those fortunate enough never to have had the urge to cut, I will attempt an explanation: The internal pain and hurt and turmoil smooshes around inside you. It feels like bees buzzing in your head and driving you to the brink of insanity. But you can also feel it in your body. 

You can feel it in your chest as a fizzy feeling – but not a nice fizzy, like you get in your mouth when you eat sherbet – it is a disruptive fizzy sort of feeling. It feels like cockroaches have hatched inside you, and are flying around, trying to escape. Then those cockroaches give up trying to escape and start to consume you from the inside out – they bat against your carcass from the inside out, and you can feel it! You can feel the buzzing and the batting and the biting. You have to make that stop! You have to make that sensation go away! So, cutting helps. 

Self harm is also a punishment. Sexual abuse is sexual – it targets the sexual areas of the body – and it visits shame upon the victim. We end up feeling disgusted by our own bodies, and their sexuality, their sexual appeal. We endure shame for having a body that elicits sexual excitement in abusers. We often feel an overwhelming need to punish our bodies simply for being – and for being this thing that attracts abuse to itself. It deserves pain. It deserves pain for being so shameful, so ugly, so repellent, while at the same time being a source of attraction for abusers. Abusers would not abuse if you did not exist. Cutting off that which is attracting the abusers punishes you for attracting them. It never occurs to you that it might also be a way of punishing them. 

On a very practical level, it’s easy. Think about it. If you really want to do a bit of damage to something, you need to ‘grab a hold’ of it. Even back in the days when I skinny, I could grab a handful of boob, and hold it steady while I hacked away. Try doing that with a wrist. 

Once I had stopped the worst of the cutting, I was left with scars that I was ashamed of, and that I was worried about. Worried that they would be the first thing someone would see, or would notice, notice about my exposed breasts. It was then that I decided to give them a gift. That is what the tattoo was originally intended for. 

It was a way of making it up to my breasts for making them ugly: A way to prettify them, to take the attention away from the scars they bear. 

Apart from the scars, and the tattoo, I have managed to do some permanent damage. Cysts have formed under the scar tissue where I cut myself. Sometimes, they get painful, but I am lucky that they are self-draining, so do not require medical intervention. I did have them aspirated when they were first diagnosed following my first mammogram when I was twenty-seven. Actually, memories of that first breasts exam always make me smile. I know, no-one has ‘happy memories’ of having their mammaries examined, but bear with me here:

There I was, all of twenty-seven, not long married (for the second time), and I noticed I had a leaky breast. Sitting at the computer one morning, tapping away at a script under the pressure of a deadline, I noticed a spot of green liquid on my top. It had come from the inside out, rather than something that had dripped on me. The source was my left breast. 

A day or so later, I saw my GP and she recommended that I should see a breast specialist. Within a week (healthcare in Singapore is superb), I was a private hospitals, waiting for my very first mammogram. In advance of that, however, an ultrasound imaging of my breasts was ordered. The technician came in and introduced herself. With my breasts exposed, I turned my head towards the screen, waiting to see whatever I might be able to see on it. Picking up the bottle of gel, the technician said ‘Oh no. That’s not right. Excuse me, just one moment please,’ and she left the cubicle. For thirty seconds or so, I lay there thinking that she was such an expert at her job that she was able to tell, just by looking that there was something terribly wrong with my bosom. I assumed she’d gone to find a colleague to confirm her suspicions. 

When she returned, however, she was still alone. 

‘Sorry,’ she said, as she applied the gel to my skin. ‘Just the other one was cold.’ 

In this facility, the gel used for ultrasounds was heated up in a row of baby-bottle-warmers and the one she’d first brought in to use on me wasn’t warm enough. Lying there, being scanned, all I could think was ‘I have arrived’.

The ultrasound, and the mammogram afterwards, showed nothing sinister. Thank God. I just happen to have cystic breasts, and the cysts have formed under the wounds I inflicted on myself. 

DIY mastectomies are two of the few things I am glad I failed at. I am glad I never managed to chop my own breasts off. Far from being terrible appendages that deserved to be hated, they are wonderful, beautiful, magnificent, life-giving, life-sustaining sparáin. It may have taken me many years to arrive at this opinion; but it is empirical, evidence-based, and the experiments have been replicated more than once, rendering the same findings. 

Not only did I breastfeed my own two girls – my youngest until she was five and a half – I contributed, for about fourteen months, to the human milk bank in Fermanagh. As a result, I helped scores of other children in the process. I mention this not because I think it was a worthwhile thing to do, but because it was hugely useful in my own healing journey: My body was suddenly doing something ‘right’. It was suddenly being ‘useful’, and suddenly being helpful to others because I chose it to be. That was empowering. As an unexpected benefit, I was teaching my daughters the concept of ‘Seva’. This is the principle of ‘selfless service’, and is a central tenet of Hinduism. Essentially, it is the concept of doing something, selflessly, for another, without expectation of reward.  

My children learnt that we are all inter-connected, and that it is important to do what we can for others, whenever, and wherever we can. They got that information – quite literally – with their mother’s milk. 

When I was contributing to the milk bank, there was an order – akin to a ritual – to the preparation of my contributions. I sat at the table every morning, with my daughter on one breast, and a manual breast pump on the other. As Kashmira sucked, my other breast gave up its liquid gold. The milk-bank milk was then put into special, sterile bags and cooled, then frozen, until I had enough to fill the special polystyrene box that was then taken to the bus station in Dublin’s city centre. There, it went on the bus where the driver would go out of his way (he literally went off his designated route), to ensure that the milk was delivered to the milk bank. 

Within a few weeks of my starting to collect milk for the bank, my eldest daughter started to call it ‘milk for the sick babies’ and treat it with reverence. She had once been a ‘sick baby’ herself; born at 28 weeks in India, and never expected to survive. She didn’t have the ability to suck when she was born, so to get my milk into her, I expressed it, and gave it to her from a bottle. She never suckled from my breast, but my milk did save her life. I also used it to combat her eye infections, heal some skin irritations, and treat her gastro-intestinal illnesses while she was a tiny baby. 

In the Irish language, we do not talk about ‘breastfeeding.’ We talk about beathú cíche; literally, ‘giving life with the breast’. This is because my fore-sisters knew that the breast is about more than just food; it is about nurture, and comfort, and safety, and reassurance, and treating illness, and the continuous loop of knowledge exchange between the breastfeeding dyad. 

Of course, the crowning glory of my breasts are my nipples. I would not change a thing – not the size, the shape, or the colour – about them. I certainly would not change the fact that their sensitivity means that – with an attentive lover (and even on the days when I have to be my own attentive lover) – they can provide the most spectacular, the most explosive orgasms. I love a good nipplegasm. 


Child sexual abuse has profound effects on victims/survivors/victors. Many of these are already well-documented in the literature. Perhaps less well known is the proclivity some survivors have for targeting their breasts as a site for self-loathing. 

Healing is not linear, and it is never complete. It is, however, possible to heal certain parts, or to heal certain areas of damage – physical and emotional. Some ways of healing are more of a reclamation than others, and occur almost by stealth, as is revealed in this article. Autoethnography is employed as methodology, to detail the decades-long introspective voyage from hating specific sexualized body parts (the female breasts) to loving them.

The link to a recording of the piece is here:  https://vimeo.com/687498576/2498f2e69a


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