Cruciate and Crucial: The Gendered Crux of It

This is what I learned about the word cruciate today, as in cruciate ligament: It’s from the Latin cruciātus, past participle of cruciāre—to torture, rack, torment.  

A now obsolete definition: tortured.

(As in, look what language has racked up here, whose cross this is to bear, whose cross this is that has broken.)

I’m a lapsed Catholic as I am a lapsed runner, so the metonymic weight of the cruciate and its etymology, the cross, the crux, isn’t lost on me. But, lest I cross anyone, let me assure you I don’t mean to paint myself as a martyr or to glorify or exaggerate my suffering. I’m just waxing poetic.

And waning. And wanting.   

Like the image of the cross, the ligament has borne religious and metaphorical weight, as John Winthrop, in his sermon A Model of Christianity, likens love to a ligament, arguing that “the ligaments of this body [his community] which knit together are love” and that “no body can be perfect which wants its proper ligament” (172).

I was on crutches when I assigned this sermon to my American Literature class in the fall, and I was very enthusiastic about the metaphorical power of the ligament in this piece.) I’ve briefly considered branding myself with the latter quotation above, though I’ve (so far) resisted the urge.

The ligament represents and embodies (literally) connection—pleasure, perfection.

The second time my anterior cruciate ligament was reconstructed, I required the connection of another body. My first reconstruction in 2004 was performed with an autograft, fashioned from my own harvested tissue, but in 2014 my surgeon constructed an allograft, a cadaver graft, using the Achilles tendon of a donor. A good friend of mine who is now a doctor was excited to hear this was what my surgeon would be using, comparing the strength of Achilles tendons to that of a “steel cable,” as I recall.

Since then I’ve often pictured a steel cable between my femur and my tibia in an initial stride of power, my piston calves following close behind with metaphorical force.

On metaphor, Alicia Ostriker writes this:

The pleasure we take in metaphor is a pleasure of consent, an agreement that the distance between two things is cancellable because of their likeness, whereby each illuminates some inner truth belonging to the other. The question of whether the things are themselves usually pleasurable or painful is irrelevant. (90)

I’ve thought a lot about the donor whose body is now merged with my own, about our metaphorical relationship. This is all I know about him: male, fifty years old.

I’ve thought a lot about how young that is to die, despite the fact that many surgeons consider it “old” for donor tissue.

I do also know that he gave me a “good graft,” which is holding strong, even though I’m still unable to run on it.

On February 25, 2015, I wrote this (which perhaps makes up in optimism what it lacks in sensitivity): “7 months post-op today. 11 days from the starting line. I'm not sure if the man whose Achilles tendon is now my ACL was a marathoner, but at least part of him is going to be one soon. Which is actually pretty cool. (I wish we were both just a little bit faster, but it's still pretty early on in our partnership, I guess.)”

I’ve also made a lot of (perhaps hopeful) jokes since the surgery in July 2014 about becoming more masculine after accepting male donor tissue.

                                                MY PSYCHOLOGIST (last Friday, pensive)

 Are you mad at your gender?

                                                ME (last Friday, quads tense)


                                                MY PSYCHOLOGIST

Is there more to it than that?


Are you asking me if I wish I were a man?


I don’t want to be a man.


I would like a man’s knees, though.


I have a man's ACL. Not that that's doing me any good.

My relationship with my gender over the course of my consciousness: cruciate. And since the accident, this cross, this tension, has at times been difficult to bear.

That’s not to say, of course, that my fraught relationship with my femininity is a new thing. It’s not.

Age 7: A woman who lives in our development has a grandson named Billy. (Billy and Billie. Yep.) He’s my age, and when he visits his grandmother, we play in the pool together. I come to dread this because it goes the same way every time—for the first hour or so we have a lot of fun together, and then, without fail, he initiates some sort of boys versus girls game and makes me feel weak and angry. Somehow I always lose, just by being a girl. (It will be a few years before I learn the words “emasculate” or “patriarchy.”)

Age 7: I ask my dad what he calls the patches of hair above his ears. I learn the word sideburns. I go to get a pixie cut and ask my stylist if I can have sideburns too. She laughs and tells me, no, but she says she can give me “wispies.” (I will note that now that I cut off all of my hair, my stylists specifically ask me what they should do with my sideburns. But because I can still hear that one stylist laughing at me, the first time my stylist here asked me about my sideburns I was taken aback. And maybe even a little offended.)

Age 11: My doctor reports to my mother that I have “breast buds.” I’m furious. (What the hell does that mean anyway? Do they evolve into full-blown flowers?) I refuse to wear a sports bra to my basketball games. (I will note that I now LOVE sports bras. Particularly, I’ll confess, if they feature the Nike swoosh.)

Age 11: We’re separated for sex ed class. This aggravates me. I don’t want to talk about periods or puberty or, God forbid, breast buds. And the sample deodorant they give the boys, frankly, smells more delicious than what they’re giving us. The school nurse (Mrs. Ward?—it’s all coming back to me now) has a question box in which we can place anonymous questions. I write, Is this why I can’t play baseball? She reads my question (it’s written in red pen), but she doesn’t answer it.

Age 13: I’m so deeply ashamed of menstruation that I layer maxi pads when I go to school so that I don’t have to change them throughout the day. (Someone might hear the rip of the adhesive against the cotton of my underwear.) When I wake up on my birthday and my period has just arrived (uninvited, again), I cry on the toilet, look up at the ceiling and tell God I’ll never forgive you for this.

Age 27: A physical therapist (who means well) shows me that my knees turn in a bit, like many women’s, explaining that it’s because of the way our hips are set—for childbirth. Perhaps, he suggests, this has made me more prone to anterior cruciate ligament injuries. The literature suggests he’s correct, so I don’t balk until he says this: “It’s just the way the good Lord made you.”

I don’t not want to be a woman, I explained to my psychologist. I’m never going to be hyperfeminine—I never have been—and that’s okay.

But I do hate that this extended cycle of injury and recovery has made me feel that I can never be the kind of woman I want to be—the kind of runner I want to be—because I’m not a man.

Confession: I’m already a lapsed Catholic and a lapsed runner. I don’t want to have to regard myself as a lapsed feminist as well because of all of this self-directed disgust.

This is the crux of it. It’s crucial that I find a way to forgive my body and my gender—and my gendered body—for its failures, its ruptures. Its openings—and what I feel they’ve closed me off from.

(Is this all metaphorical?)

God help me.


Works Cited

Ostriker, Alicia. “Metaphor and Healing: Or, Why Metaphor is Not a Bandage.” Tell Me Again: Poetry and Prose from The Healing Art of Writing, 2012. Ed. Joan Baranow and David Watts. San Francisco: University of California Medical Humanities Press, 2014. 88-96. PDF File. Web. 24 Oct. 2015.

Winthrop, John. “A Model Of Christian Charity.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Beginnings to 1820. 8th ed. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 166-177. Print.