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Seven Stories Press

Works of Radical Imagination

Book cover for A Matter of Appearance
Book cover for A Matter of Appearance

A dazzling memoir of chronic illness that explores the fraught intersection between pain, language, and gender.

Emily Wells, a former ballerina, spent her childhood dancing through intense, whole-body pain she assumed was normal for someone used to pushing her body to its limits. For years, no doctor could tell Wells what was wrong with her, or they told her it was “all in her head.” It was only in college that she learned the name for the illness she had been suffering from all her life: Behcet’s Disease, a rare congenital disorder causing blood vessel inflammation throughout the body, arthritis, and swelling of the brain.
In A Matter of Appearance, Wells, traces her journey as she tries to understand and define the the chronic pain she has lived with all her life. She draws on the critical works of Freud, Sontag, and others to explore the intersection between gender, pain, and language, tracing a direct line from the “hysteria patients” documented at the Salpêtrière Hospital in nineteenth-century Paris to the contemporary New Age healers of Los Angeles, her stomping ground. At the crux of Wells' literary project is the dilemma of how to diagnose an an experience that is both private and public, subjective and quantifiable, and how to express all of this in words.
A work of crystalline beauty and razorlike insight, A Matter of Appearance introduces a much needed millennial voice to the literature of illness.

Book cover for A Matter of Appearance
Book cover for A Matter of Appearance

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A Matter of Appearance is what the genre of 'sick lit' is missing: Wells ties up the loose ends between the rich history of hysteria, consumption, and modern stories of autoimmunity, while resisting the maudlin. Absolutely dazzling.”

“Drawing on the archives of sickness and her own experience as a patient, she demands a more nuanced understanding of the diagnostic categories of mental illness and biological illness.”

A Matter of Appearance brilliantly gives language to the body, and measures the distance between the kinds of narratives that tend to be projected onto women’s bodies and the stories these bodies are actually telling. Perceptive, fascinating, superb.”

“Gorgeously written and brilliantly argued, A Matter of Appearance uses chronic illness as a lever to investigate the life of a body. It’s complex, inconclusive, and incredibly clear-eyed. Moving fluidly between histories of psychoanalysis, desire, ambition, pathology, Wells reminds us of the liminal state we all live in between sickness and health.”

“Lyrical and enigmatic, ferocious and riveting, A Matter of Appearance is a primal scream, a memoir driven by the question of how to survive and make sense — not meaning — of a life of invisible physical suffering. Emily Wells is a brilliant and enthralling new voice.”

“Precise and unflinching, yet full of beauty, A Matter of Appearance draws impressive clarity from centuries of sources, which Wells deftly aligns to illuminate the conditions of living within the contradictions of womanhood and a human body.”

“Wells’s rare autoimmune disease is only diagnosed when she becomes an adult, having suffered since childhood from symptoms that were chalked up to her emotions. Yet she quickly begins to understand that ‘just because something has a name doesn’t mean people believe it is real.’ This follows in medical scenarios: being asked to quantify pain on a scale of 1 to 10 is a struggle, ‘unsure of how to turn a sensation into a number.’ … Writing through and of pain will inevitably include these complications of expression, and A Matter of Appearance serves a reminder that it is still worth trying to translate a perpetual scream.”

“Emily Wells’s A Matter of Appearances masterfully explores the idiosyncratic experience of pain within a cultural history of pain.”

EMILY WELLS is a writer based in Los Angeles. She holds an MFA in creative writing from UC Riverside, and now teaches writing at UC Irvine. She writes for publications including Bookforum, Vogue, Interview Magazine, The Lost Angeles Review of Books, The White Review, Flash Art, Purple Fashion Magazine, and many others. Previously, she has been a magazine editor, fashion model, crime reporter, and classically trained ballet dancer.