Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Lee Kofman
8 January 2019, $32.99, ISBN: 9781925584813, Paperback, 336 pages
There would be few people who don’t hold up the notion of “perfection” as a state to aspire to. But what does it mean to be perfect? Is the state of “flawlessness” achievable? How does this pivot around culturally determined norms of idealised beauty which are, themselves, inherently flawed, for example, the “perfect” nose, “perfect” skin tone, or “perfect” height and weight, all relative and subjective. Lee Kofman takes a scholar’s eye to this topic and analyses it deeply, drawing partly on her own experiences growing up with extensive scars from a combination of heart surgery to correct a congenital defect, and an accident in which she is run over by a bus. The work is an exquisite hybrid of forms, combining scholarship, reportage/interview, and personal recollection that is often deeply poetic, as in the moments before her leg is operated on after the bus accident:
The mask is clammy like a jellyfish. My mouth and nose are instantly blocked. I cannot breathe. I cannot breathe. This is nothing like the injections I had in Moscow, which sent my consciousness drifting away gently. This is an existential crisis, way worse than the shock of the bus, the blood, the shit-brown stripes. The vision fo the man in the bright-white room reappears as a waking dream. I’m going to see this man. I’m falling deep into his eternity. I feel a sharp drop in my abdomen.
This. Is. Terror.
Then the world disappears. (25)
The combination of genres in play here is compelling and beautifully handled, allowing plenty of space for reader engagement and recognition—something the book makes clear is universal:
This book, then, is also my attempt to understand what it generally means to be a human—to have a wondrous, desirous mind, vulnerable to imaginative fancies and to pathology, ensconced, or perhaps imprisoned, within an intricately orchestrated yet terribly fragile tangle of blood vessels, nerves, bones and skin. (9)
Philosophically, Imperfect covers a wide terrain, from notions of what constitutes beauty to the intersection of pain, pleasure, and personal transformation through maturity. Kofman’s story is powerful and complex enough to hold the book, particularly between her heart surgery in Siberia at eight years old, and the point two years later when her over-protective mother allows her out for a rare visit to the shops only for her to be hit by a bus driven by a drunk driver. Kofman writes about these experiences with deep honesty, but also impassionately and with a scholar’s eye, so that the story is both engaging but also creates a broader picture of societal norms, stresses, and structures. For example, there is the antisemitism experienced in her post-operative state:
The lights were already out and the others tossed and turned irritably. I was lying on my back, my upper body enclosed in dressings, unable to turn on my side the way I usually slept. The middle of my chest, where. Scar was already forming, was terribly itchy but I could do nothing about that either. I tried to fall asleep, to get through the night somehow.
‘The Jewish princess has come back,’ said a girl with purple lips. ‘Do you know that the Butcher was supposed to operate on her? Her mother fucked some stinky orderlies to get her a different surgeon. Only Jews do things like that.’ (17)
The work moves through Kofman’s story, including her various migrations from Siberia to Odessa in Russia to Tel Aviv in Israel, and from Israel to Australia, exploring notions of belonging, “normalcy” and beauty against difference, both visible and invisible. The work moves smoothly between internal awareness and external perception:
In western societies we often overlook the fact that that scars are actually a new, usually tougher, skin tissue that mends what is broken. Scars, as well as amputations, highlight the limits of our technological potency and remind us of our animal nature. We look at mutilations and remember that we, too, can come apart at the seams. (37)
Kofman explores such things as concealment and disclosure, sex (and ‘sexual capital’ or the social value and usability of of sexual attractiveness), self-perception, the representation of scars in art, the value for advertisers in manipulating women into perceiving themselves a certain way, vanity, and the ongoing pressure for radical self-love. Kofman also examines her mother’s relationship with her body and its poor metabolism, especially in the context of fat phobia, and then goes on to profile a wide number of people with a range of physical differences. Some of these have come to terms with their differences and are inspirational, like Mia Sinclair, born with dwarfism, the poet Andy Jackson, who has Marfan’s Syndrome, or Turia Pitt, who suffered burns to sixty-five percent of her body in a bushfire in 2011 while competing in an ultramarathon, and Jessica Smith, a former Paralympian born without a left forearm. Kofman also explores people who deliberately modify their bodies, such as Dennis Avner, the Stalking Cat, Australia’s most modified woman, Kylie Garth, Luna Cobra, the man who pioneered the distinctive eyeball tattooing that turned the whites of Garth’s eyes aqua, and María José Cristerna Méndez, the vampire or Jaguar woman.
As part of her research, Kofman participated in a number of projects including the SCAR Project documentary which presents confrontingly beautiful images of breast cancer survivors, and Camp Corroboree, a camp run by the Burns Support Foundation for burns survivors to gather and talk through their stories. She also met up with unusual looking models: Weah Bangura who has Albinism, Melanie Gaydos who has ectodermal dysplasia (no teeth, pores, hair, nails, cartilage and underdeveloped bones), and Caitin Stickels, a model with Cat Eye syndrome. The book has a number of photos, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t spend time Googling these people, or that I wasn’t fascinated by the whole notion of what constitutes beauty – and the way in which it’s judged. Kofman doesn’t pretend to have an answer—Imperfect is not a didactic book, and nor does it present a thesis that beauty is more than ‘skin deep’ and that judgement in any form is bad–we cannot help gazing at the beautiful or indeed the shocking. What the book does show however, is that these are complex and important questions to raise and that familiarity and reflectiveness are a means to better understanding who we are. Imperfect raises these questions sensitively, and provides a beautifully written, well-researched context that is both interesting and powerfully important.