In The Case of the Missing Body, Jenny Powell beautifully renders the strangeness of proprioceptive disorder. People with this disorder lack the natural awareness of where the body is positioned. And so, Powell introduces the book as a kind of detective story. What she is searching for is a body that has always been there, but that she herself has been unable to feel.
In this memoir, Powell explores her own story through Lily. The prologue starts with longing as Powell describes Lily’s simple dream of being able to ride a bicycle. This dream and many others are turned down as Lily struggles with the disorder through ballet and gymnastics classes. Her life becomes defined by surgeries and a cycle of breakage and repair.
Lily’s diary entries give a personal insight into her journey. After repeated injuries, she makes a gym appointment to find the joints within her body again. As she works with her physiotherapist Patrick, her sense of self widens within her. When Lily finds movement in her shoulder blades, she describes these joints as “shoulder-blade wings”. Suddenly, her body isn’t just a head with floating thoughts; it comes to be made out of other connecting limbs.
Without the natural grasp of her body that others have the luxury of, Lily turns to her own conscious thoughts in order to ground herself. Again and again, she returns to the idea of herself as a totem pole, and it is this image that keeps her straightening her back and retaining her posture. As Lily describes it, “Here is a way in to my brain, through imaginings”. It is her way of understanding what her own body cannot.
It becomes a learning process not just in finding her body, but having the confidence to continue. This also means continuing her programme at the gym, sometimes going alone, with some sessions that are clumsier than others. Without her own natural sense of her body, she must craft her own out of determination.
At the epilogue, Powell comes back to Lily’s bicycle dream. First, Powell describes other alternate Lilys that have become trapped within wonderland, ones who tumble down rabbit holes and are forever stumbling. Then she finally comes back to the Lily of reality, who still dreams of riding that bike. However, now she is closer than ever and does not stumble as heavily as she used to. She cycles on the tandem bike in the gym and lives “a forever moment on a rented opportunity”. Her flying is a different kind of flying, one that begins and grows with the shoulder blades that she sees as wings, as freedom.
Powell proves that physiotherapy is not just a process concerning the body, but also the mind. The complexity of Lily’s condition is one that requires adjustment and time. The appendix of definitions at the end of the book is also invaluable in further understanding proprioceptive disorder, something I’d never heard of before reading the book.
The Case of the Missing Body is a memoir on locating the self not just physically, but also mentally. It is a detective story where the detective uses her mind and determination to slowly uncover clues, part by part, in order to locate her own body.
Reviewed by Emma Shi
The Case of the Missing Body
by Jenny Powell
Published by Otago University Press