The Girl with Three Legs: A Memoir. By Soraya Miré. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2011. 386 pages. $26.95. www.lawrencehillbooks.com Review by J. Steven Svoboda.
Soraya Miré, longtime toiler in the trenches to help educate the world about the harm caused by female genital cutting (FGC), has published her biography. The author, who has also made clear her opposition to male circumcision, has come up with a truly remarkable book, for a number of reasons.
The Girl with Three Legs centrally addresses the author’s pivotal, supremely traumatic experience with FGC and her subsequent dedication of her life to working to help stop it. Miré does a masterful job of avoiding many of the pitfalls that afflicted several previously published memoirs by victims of genital cutting. Her authorial voice is clear, vibrant, and remarkably engaging considering the grimness of many of her life experiences. One of the secrets to the unique success of her memoir is her willingness to show herself in all her imperfections, as a human being worthy of love who nevertheless has suffered cruelly. Moreover, while the book does centrally address her experience with FGC and her subsequent dedication of her life to the goal of educating the world about its evils, it is down to earth and accessible. The author brings us into her world and makes us feel she is engaging us in a personal conversation.
Miré manages this impressive feat by exhibiting a candidness in her reflection on her past experiences that further accentuates the trustworthiness and power of her story while at the same time exposing herself as having been a remarkably naïve young woman. Not just once, but several times throughout the book, the author finds herself in close encounters with prostitutes and other characters more worldly than she and fearlessly shows us how utterly she fails to realize with whom she is dealing, in some cases over what in other hands might seem an implausibly long period of time. This motif paradoxically strengthens the book’s impact, allowing the reader to recognize the part of himself or herself that is innocent, and perhaps encouraging us to also refocus on the supreme innocence of the child who suffers genital cutting.
Make no mistake, Soraya Miré has had a remarkable life. She endured a clitoridectomy that was inflicted on her largely due to the malefic influence of her truly horrific mother. (Happily, the author is graced with a kind and wonderful father, who steadfastly protects her until his untimely death.) Subsequently, Miré was forced into a marriage with a cruel man and many years passed before she was able to escape while living in Geneva. Another betrayal occurs later in the book when her mother deceives her into again coming under the control of her husband, who unsurprisingly rapes her. Later she takes a seemingly kind man Raj into her confidence. He becomes her boyfriend of sorts but in the end turns out to be quite jealous and not very nice. A boyfriend of a friend of hers also rapes her, and this time she became pregnant as a result.
The author’s naivete is again evident as she comes into close contact with a peculiar man named Nigel, whom many readers will immediately (and correctly) suspect is gay though this realization takes quite a while to come to the author. Nigel works hard, and movingly, to help her become more confident with her body despite her past traumas, and Nigel’s efforts do eventually end up bearing some fruit.
Later in the book, Miré’s innocence is channeled into her determined quest to create a movie about FGC. She sees actress Debbie Allen on television, quits her job, and becomes an actress on an infomercial, all in a quixotic quest to seek Allen’s support for her planned movie about FGC. The author also drives from Los Angeles to Chicago in an ultimately futile attempt to convince Oprah Winfrey to fund the movie she eventually does succeed in making about FGC, “Fire Eyes.” Yet her very determination is deeply inspirational.
While telling her truly horrific story, Soraya Miré admirably sticks to faithfully describing her own experience, abstaining from the temptation of using this platform to make broader political statements. This restrained approach encourages the reader to draw out the implications of what Mire experienced in terms of our world’s continuing addiction to genital cutting. And the book is stronger for the admirable focus the author maintains in her narrative.
Soraya Mire has achieved a rare feat, all the more uncommon in this era of social networks and short attention spans. She has led with her heart and courageously offered herself to the reader, the most generous act possible for an author. Everyone should read this groundbreaking work, even if you are not particularly interested in genital cutting or children’s rights, but especially if you are. Highly recommended to all human beings.