In this current climate of the #MeToo movement, women across the globe are fighting back against sexual harassment and assault by pulling back the curtain of shame, stepping out of the shadows, and sharing their personal stories. Author Patricia “Pat” Cumbie bravely adds her voice to this critical discourse with her memoir, The Shape of a Hundred Hips.
In the opening sentence of the book, Cumbie describes golden beams of sunlight dappling the worn, wooden dance floor where she, firmly ensconced in middle-age, is standing. Right away, readers are presented with a metaphor of movement, as belly dance is equated, and literally aglow, with the potential of healing. She provides a history of this, at times, misunderstood Middle Eastern art form, simultaneously describing the ways it has helped her personally.
Cumbie had been living, as she states, “outside” her body since suffering sexual assault during her freshman year of college. In a little over two hundred pages, she leads readers from her hardworking, Mid-Western childhood, where her parents raise her to always be polite, through to her college years—where we see Cumbie trying on different personas in an effort to belong, leading to the fateful night of her assault. Feeling that “rape is not considered well-mannered conversation,” the author tries to bury the trauma by ignoring it. It isn’t until she discovers the art of belly dancing that she begins to reconnect her body with her soul.
Cumbie expertly weaves narratives of a tomboy youth and of her budding sexuality that is eventually ripped away, ultimately unpacking the anxiety of a middle-aged woman still haunted by assault. Thankfully, she does heal, and the reader joins her on her recovery, which is anything but traditional. The author returns to wholeness slowly, with every sashay of her hips, and with every jingle of the gold-coin embroidered scarf tied around her waist. Her prose is both unflinching and poetic:
“Each session was a mini catharsis of practice and repetition, timing, and control. Clearly, the body is meant to move down, out, and up. A woman should be able to freely move her chest in a figure-eight, the mirror image of the infinite.”
In the end, the author regains her sense of self and rejoins her marriage as a fully present partner. I feel Cumbie’s writing is incisive, personable, and critically important for those who are seeking their own way back to reclaiming life after assault. I’m in awe of the courage in Patricia Cumbie’s prose, and grateful she has offered to light the way with this candid and inspiring narrative.