Unsex the Lab

Kit Owens, the protagonist of Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand, is a postdoc in the research lab of academic rock star Dr. Lena Severin; Severin has just received a prestigious research grant when Kit’s ...

This is the 13th installment of our series An Engineer Reads a Novel.


Kit Owens, the protagonist of Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand, is a postdoc in the research lab of academic rock star Dr. Lena Severin; Severin has just received a prestigious research grant when Kit’s old friend and academic rival Diane joins the group. Kit remembers a short, intense high school friendship with Diane: “We shared an energy that crackled in both of us, a drive, a hunger, a singing ambition.”

Amazingly, intentionally, Kit (and now, Diane) works in the lab of a female principal investigator. Not just a female scientist, but one whose research questions are explicitly gendered: Dr. Severin’s focus is premenstrual biochemistry and neuroscience, taking seriously aspects of women’s health that have long been dismissed as “hysteria”—the wandering womb—and “psychosomatic syndromes.” “When women come for help, they’re frequently dismissed with a roll of the eyes,” laments Dr. Severin. The plot of this novel reinforces the way women are, in the eyes of society, unreliable narrators.

Severin’s target, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, is an “enigma.” “In the old days, if you had it bad, they used to just cut out your ovaries to ‘cure’ you.” Hysteria was long the catchall syndrome for which women might be prescribed the “rest cure,” or genital massage, or Dr. Kellogg’s carbolic acid blistering; as Terri Kapsalis puts it, “the uterus was a troublemaker.”1 The most common triggers for a hysteria diagnosis were “rebelliousness, shamelessness, ambition, and ‘over education’”; and society’s difficulty accepting such traits in women, Kapsalis finds, has persisted from early “patients” such as suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton and activist Jane Addams right into the present day. (You won’t need long in the archives to find warnings about how problematic female ambition and “over-preparation” for a job could be, or claims about how refreshing a man’s tendency to “wing it” might feel.) So it’s significant that their “ambition” is one of the first things Abbott describes about Kit and Diane.

The mysterious workings of women’s health—cyclic bloodletting, the so-called miracle of birth—have been viewed with superstition and fear. Women’s bodies have experienced the contradictory impulses of doctors toward modesty—the stethoscope itself was invented due to male doctors’ reluctance to brazenly place their ears on the throbbing chests of women—and a dehumanizing rapacity. As medicine became industrialized and male doctors elbowed midwives aside, it was “out of the red tent and into the stirrups” for some anatomical manifest destiny: women’s bodies were one more frontier to be conquered, women themselves a wilderness to be tamed.2

Take J. Marion Sims, long known as the “father of modern gynecology” for his experimental, unanesthetized procedures on enslaved black women and his development of the vaginal speculum, a medical device whose development stalled out at its proof of concept crudity rather than being refined in response to the complaints of its, well, primary stakeholders. Women designers who would improve the user experience must now push against the inertia of a long-adopted instrument.3

The plot of Megan Abbott’s new novel reinforces the way women are, in the eyes of society, unreliable narrators.

Kit and Diane first encountered Dr. Severin’s work at a science camp and found her focus on women’s health—as science, not sorcery or subjugation—inspiring. Part of its appeal, too, may have been that the boy campers were embarrassed by it. Abbott, the author of several literary thrillers focused on gender, ambition, and competition, is in her element as she puts privileged private-school-transplant Diane and working-class Kit on the same track team and at the same AP Chemistry lab bench.

While Diane is confident and cool, Kit is self-conscious. She diminishes her own achievements: “I don’t know how I ended up in AP”; “I just got lucky.” Abbott also highlights uptalk and other ways some women disguise their own competence and motivation, trying not to upstage men who believe the lab is their own rightful place. Both Diane and Lena Severin, on the other hand, own it. “Banish the justs from the way you speak about yourself,” Severin advises Kit.

Back in high school, Diane’s poise initially inspires Kit toward her own achievements, but their intimacy ends abruptly when Diane shares a dark secret. Kit, horrified, ghosts Diane to chart her own path, becoming increasingly confident herself (“Up there in my head, I was pushing through overgrowth and far reaches of cheatgrass and hoary knapweed, and those reaches stretched themselves to points and the points became spears, … and nothing could stop me”) until—of all the biochem joints in the world—Diane glides into hers.

In a novel about two women scientists, it takes unsurprisingly little time before the matron saint Marie Curie is invoked. Her ambition and achievements are exemplars; and, of course, the fact that her luminous discovery slowly poisoned her is resonant as well. She was a shared polestar for 17-year-old Kit and Diane, and so she remains. In her singularity—the lone female on the all-star roster assembled at Solvay, the double helping of Nobels—she is a role model, and her words provide one of the girls’ guiding mantras: “My head is so full of plans that it seems aflame.” Ah, ambition.

Lena Severin tells Kit and Diane, “you will have to fight your entire life.” But even Severin’s lab has an unhealthy background radiation of chauvinism. Kit is frequently dismissed by her labmates as “the good little girl” or “the dutiful worker bee.” Despite Severin’s encouragement, Kit has internalized these judgments: she’s “just” a plugger, not a genius. When she is a candidate for a spot on that grant, her male colleagues assume it’s because of her gender.


Nuclear Graphics

By Joseph Masco

While Severin is a steely, stylish cipher, her mentorship seems the closest substitute Kit and Diane have for being mothered, as their own parents are deceased or disengaged. “When your mom is gone, the thing no one ever tells you is that the little compass needle inside keeps spinning around and around, never finding north.” This is a nice metaphor: what Kit thinks she needs, in the absence of her mother, is directional guidance and mentoring, though Abbott is hinting that she may also be missing a moral “true north.” Since this novel is a thriller in which the cutthroat competition in the lab is likely to become literal, this imagery and its suggestion of Kit’s moral slippage resonates.

The stakes are high, too, in the language Abbott uses to describe how Severin is both admired and feared: “Always in motion, eyes on the horizon, wrangling all her cattle, all her work oxen and beef makers and errant postdocs, branding them, driving them long across hard country.” Yet while Kit respects her vision and ambition, she knows Severin is ruthless, too: “What would it take for her to cut one of those steers loose? If she saw one go slack, turn lame, froth rabid, would she send it to the killing floor?” Severin’s attention is the highest prize. “I’m the only one in the world who knows just how smart you are,” she tells Kit. Indeed, the novel’s driving concern that a dark secret may be revealed, and the fear of losing one’s place when one’s colleagues understand the truth, comprise a very high-stakes version of the familiar malaise of imposter syndrome.

Abbott’s description of the diligent drudgery of benchwork is on point, in a way that readers can feel: “Our necks permanently crooked over microscopes, our faces cadaverous from never seeing the sun,” and our “lab hands—rough, scrubbed raw-red.” She portrays the competitiveness of the lab: “labotage,” “postdocs contaminating each other’s reagents, mislabeling bottles, swapping lids on cell cultures,” but also the camaraderie. Her labmates tease and squabble, and even flirt over their Bunsen burners, admiring each other’s techniques: “In ascending order, I like to watch you cutting, scraping, tweezing, pipetting.”

Alas, there is less evidence in Give Me Your Hand of the discovery and delight scientists find in our work. Though Kit acknowledges, “There is something beautiful in it,” she’s referring to classification and logical organization of ideas. “If everything is ordered, maybe something momentous will happen. Like the relationship, however mysterious to others, between the molecular formula you’d write on the page—C17H19ClF3NO, abstract, so much hieroglyphics—and the wild thing happening in front of your eyes, between your hands.” Kit’s notion of the “wild thing” of science, its energy and beauty, is a hint of what’s exciting enough to warrant getting that crook in one’s neck, but it doesn’t materialize often in Kit’s descriptions of her work. Worse yet is Diane’s view, “Science is facts and results. It’s not messy. It’s precise.” That doesn’t sound like the worldview of someone who’s drawn to the lab bench by passion and curiosity.

Surely, “grander seeing” should involve more than just one set of eyes, so that a more inclusive STEM team acts like a multifaceted prism.

For me, science is much more than finding (or imposing) order within chaos. It’s a search for a truth and beauty that are mutually enhancing. As Richard Feynman wrote: “Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars—mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more?”4 Marie Curie herself said, “I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his [sic] laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale.”5 She said, too, that the “sights” she had seen (indeed, that she had made visible) made her “rejoice like a child.”

Kit ascribes Feynman’s and Curie’s kind of wisdom to her mentor Dr. Severin: she “is able to see things I long to see, overarching networks, grand symphonies of the body, the brain, the genes, and the blood.” This vision appeals to Kit: “Working with Dr. Severin … I’ll be a part of the grander seeing, the illumination of darkness.” Nonetheless, in this novel poets get the win—twice, characters meaningfully invoke Shakespeare in ways that richly resonate with the book’s themes. The beauty is in the Bard and his metaphors, not in the lab work or its implications. And the ambition that burns within Severin’s students and postdocs seems to be more for personal glory and gilded CVs than curiosity and wonder.

That ambition would surely be thwarted if a deep dark secret were revealed. Abbott performs a kind of trickery that I resented at first: to manufacture suspense, she withholds information that our point-of-view character knows. Novels—thrillers like Give Me Your Hand, or novels of any genre—that pretend the point-of-view character has thoroughly buried the secret itself but continue to seed their monologue with portentous phrases like that dark day or the moment everything changed are not playing fair. Kit, our first-person narrator, could tell us everything at any time.

So the first few mentions, here, of a “secret,” “the talk … that would knock around in my brain ever after,” and “the worst thing anyone’s ever told me,” raised concerns for me. Well, Megan Abbott is no mere trickster. She knows exactly what she’s doing. As my own inner voice was pleading with her to stop the withholding game, she offered a scene in which Kit challenges Dr. Severin to reveal the identity of the two members of the group who will be getting plum research assignments on a new NIH grant. “Do you already know who [they] will be?” Kit asks her, surprising everyone in the research group. “Because if so, why not just tell us now?” Yes, this reader thought, why not? Severin, like Abbott, keeps her cards close to the chest; a fellow scientist reminds Kit, “She likes to keep us fingers-on-the-ledge.” Abbott has her readers there too, just where she wants us.


Toxic Masculine Cosmology

By Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

In Give Me Your Hand, Abbott offers more than a long-teased secret revealed at last to the reader. The true thrill is in how and to whom the secret will be revealed, who is implicated, and what impact its revelation will have on the characters we care about. Kit is not only—not “just”—a victim. The “everything” she could have told us early on wasn’t “everything,” after all. In a very satisfying twist, “hysteria” and “premenstrual dysphoric disorder” are both cleared of any culpability for the book’s violence.

This is the kind of novel in which “there will be blood” and “blood will out” are both leitmotifs and promises. We can expect a cascade of bad decisions that starts with a decision to keep a secret, not to call 911 in an emergency, and so on. You know you’re riding into darkness, but Abbott has firm control of the reins. There are filmic twists and dramatic revelations, but for the most part, even in situations that strain credulity, Abbott’s characters do not. Having rendered the context of the Severin lab so vividly, she can kill off her characters convincingly, calling on methods and motives that she has well established in the world of the novel.

With the book’s scientific research questions positioned as a corrective to long-held fears of female ambition, Abbott’s plot turns suggest it’s not ambition itself but competition that is truly sinister. I agree that scientists who are curious collaborators run more effective (and less deadly) labs than those in it for individual glory. Surely, “grander seeing” should involve more than just one set of eyes, so that a more inclusive STEM team acts like a multifaceted prism to reveal more light and color than a single lens could. I’m thrilled that after publishing novels set in female-centered worlds of gymnastics and cheerleading, Abbott has brought her particular concerns to science. It’s long past time for women to be the principal investigators of questions about their own minds and bodies. icon

  1. Terri Kapsalis, “Hysteria, Witches, and the Wandering Uterus: A Brief History,” Literary Hub, April 5, 2017. See also Terri Kapsalis, Public Privates: Performing Gynecology from Both Ends of the Speculum (Duke University Press, 1997).
  2. Jenn Stroud Rossmann, “Built to Spec?: The Vaginal Speculum as a Case Study of Inadequate Design,” Ambidextrous, vol. 10 (2008), pp. 47–49.
  3. Sarah Zhang, “The Surgeon Who Experimented on Slaves,” The Atlantic, April 18, 2018; Daniela Blei, “Women Are Reinventing the Long-Despised Speculum,” The Atlantic, March 8, 2018.
  4. Richard Feynman, Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher (Basic, 2011), pp. 20–21.
  5. Marie Curie, quoted in Eva Curie, Madame Curie: A Biography, translated from the French by Vincent Sheean (Da Capo, 2001), p. 341.
Featured image: Endometrial stromal condensation (2009). Wikimedia Commons.