Emma Cooke, an internal medicine pediatrics resident, reflects on how reading about spirit possession and dybbuk possession has articulated her own experiences in medicine. Emma reflects on the gendered performances of knowledge and authority when inhabiting--and refusing--masculine norms.
EMMA COOKE: This is Metastasis. I am your host Emma Cooke.
I’m an internal medicine pediatrics resident at Baylor College of Medicine with a somewhat niche interest. In college, I learned about dybbuk literature, a genre of stories about spirit possession. Specifically, a rejected lover (usually a dead man) possesses the body of his beloved (usually a living woman). This non-consensual possession usually gives her increased social power. These horror stories have also given me insight into my experience as a resident.
More on that later.
A dybbuk—a Yiddish word derived from the Hebrew davek, meaning “to cling.”
I went to Smith for college. Four years at a women’s school was kind of a bubble. It was its own utopia. If you talked a lot in class, you were a person who just talked a lot–there were no gender tags. Your behavior reflected your behavior, it wasn’t a commentary on your gender.
Then I went to med school, and I realized what I’d forgotten: there’s an expectation about who talks and who doesn’t talk. Men talk, men can express opinions, men can be wrong–and women can do those things too, but it might not go as well for you.
But in med school, my habits were already formed. I talked a lot, because I was used to talking a lot. I studied a lot, too.
One time, on the first day of a new unit before anyone had learned the new material, I got called on to name all the layers of the abdominal wall.
I had just read the section, and knew that the layers were different above and below the arcuate line. So, I described what I read the day before.
Camper’s fascia, scarpa’s fascia, superficial abdominal fascia, external oblique, internal oblique, rectus abdominis, internal oblique, transversus abdominis...
Everyone was surprised and broke into awkward applause. It was such an odd moment. But something changed that day.
(NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I never tell this story, because it sounds like I’m making it up, but it actually happened!)
I became an anomaly because I was confident in my answers. My peers started to see me as ambitious, even pushy.
I didn’t know.
A dybbuk— a deceased spirit inhabiting a living person.
I first heard about Dybbuk tales in college. Stories about dybbuks have been around since the middle ages, but in 1914 the Jewish ethnographer and writer S. Ansky wrote a play, titled The Dybbuk, which exemplified the genre.
The book is about a beautiful young woman named Leah who is betrothed against her will to a wealthy man, instead of to the person she actually loves, the scholar Khonon.
When Khonon finds out, he is so sad that he dies.
On the day of the wedding, something happens to Leah. She starts yelling about death and spirits, and when her bridegroom lifts her veil, she shouts in a man’s voice, “YOU are not my bridegroom.” The wedding turns to chaos.
Later, we find out that Leah was possessed by Khonon’s vengeful spirit, or dybbuk, because he didn’t want the wedding to happen. And it doesn’t happen–Leah, speaking in Khonon’s voice, insults the male community elders and refuses to participate.
When I read The Dybbuk, I was intrigued. This seemed pretty cool. Leah, as a woman, didn't have the power to choose who she wanted to marry—but once she was possessed by a dybbuk, the balance of power shifted. She has a female body with a male spirit. This way, she took on a new status that mingled horror with respect.
So I wondered about other dybbuk tales. Did they have a similar pattern? Did they show women gaining power after being possessed by the spirit of a man?
EMMA COOKE: I thought I wanted to be a surgeon. So, when it came time for my surgery rotation, everything I presented about myself was with that in mind. Surgery was essentially all male. I worked with a bunch of dudes who’d call you by your last name and swear a lot and occasionally throw things around the OR when they got mad.
I thought it was pretty cool. I wanted to be like them (maybe minus the tantrums). I would always be the first to volunteer to do something or answer a question. I did well during the rotation. Part of that was because I worked hard. But I was also tall, and opinionated, and seemed less femme than the two women I was on the rotation with–and that made people take me more seriously.
One day, one of the fellows took me aside and told me that I was smart and knew a lot. But he also told me to back off. He said that I needed to be careful because I had a type A personality and could rub some people the wrong way. I think he saw himself in me, and felt conflicted about it.
Sociologist Mimi Schippers has written about these kinds of encounters. Schippers says that when women embody masculine characteristics, they inherently refuse to comply with hegemonic masculinity. They become a threat. Schippers writes that they “deviate from practices defined as feminine,” and this “constitute[s] a refusal to embody the relationship between masculinity and femininity demanded by gender hegemony.” (Shippers 2007, 95)
A dybbuk— a deceased spirit inhabiting a living person, sometimes as a way of seeking justice or revenge against the living.
In 1955, the Polish-American novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote Satan in Goray. This was a deeply creepy book set in 17th century Poland, a time when Jewish villagers lived precariously. They lived with paranoid shtetl neighbors and were always in danger of being attacked by Cossack mobs.
But the book isn’t creepy because of its setting. Something about the main character Rechele has stayed with me. Singer describes Rechele as a disabled and impoverished woman, who is forced to go through with her own unwanted marriage. Even though she is supposed to be ugly and “deformed” (a classic trope turning disabled characters into villains), Rechele is still hypersexualized and desirable.
After she gets married, she has an affair, and independent of the affair, she starts to have frequent and frightening visions (including some angel visitations), which ultimately lead up to being impregnated by Satan.
Rechele’s possession doubles as rape. Her angelic visitations are replaced by “mysterious and terrifying things” (Singer 205); she dreams of frightening, “subterranean passages” and “a lunglike, red and swollen thing” (208). She is torn between the sacred and the profane. The sacred—her original visitations—“had a face, but no body” (206). In contrast, the profane has a body but no face…
Rechele’s impregnation and possession is traumatic, but it also gives her physical strength, apparently greater than the strength of a man. She also takes on the status of a prophetess. Her husband even builds a prayer room around her where all-female prayer groups can gather. Here, women read from the Torah, which would normally be impossible in the shtetl.
Even with, or maybe because of these transformations, Rechele remains an object of terror.
There’s a lot more in the book, but I can’t tell if this horror story is feminist or not.
EMMA COOKE: When I read these books, I wondered how dybbuk possession manifested in real shtetl communities. Apparently, it typically happened when a young woman—or, less frequently, a young man—wanted to avoid an unwanted marriage.
Rachel Elior, a professor of Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University, has said that possession was a way for women to protect themselves in cases where they weren’t allowed to complain.
Women who were possessed would act out, curse, or refuse to eat or speak—and they couldn’t get married as long as they were possessed. This was their way out of a bad situation, and—in Elior’s words—allowed women to have a kind of “relative independence.”
Judith Butler has famously described gender as being a performance. You’re not born with it, but you learn how to take it on.
Leah and Rechele’s dybbuk possession enabled them to perform masculinity. That masculinity gave them power in a male-dominated world. But that power came at a cost.
Being a doctor is a performance too, one where masculine voices and personas are similarly valued. The way that you dress, the way that you speak, how you aren’t supposed to acknowledge doubt or uncertainty.
I had one attending tell me to never say “I think” or “I believe.” Another told us that we should never cry when giving patients bad news, even if the patient was crying too.
I reminded myself of this advice when I was already in residency, telling patients I’d grown to care for that they had no treatment options left. But as I watched them cry and numbly repeated how sorry I was, I wondered who this performance really helped. It wasn’t them. It wasn’t me.
As I’ve gone through my medical training, I’ve become more comfortable with being my actual self rather than putting on a persona. For me, resisting toxic masculinity is my way of achieving “relative independence.” It’s one form of protection in a field where depression and suicide rates are high–especially for female physicians.
I still appreciate horror as a genre, but now I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy involving political intrigue, disguise, and false pretenses. I feel like I’ve earned a certain level of expertise with those topics.
But when I’m done reading, I can put the book down and be myself.
Written by Emma Cooke
Assistant Editor Jason Lee
Directed by Lan Li