Ashley Montague’s book, Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin, has informed me as a mother, a massage therapist, a wife, and as a human being since it was published in 1971.
While driving in the car one morning my mother read an excerpt from Touching from a women’s magazine where Dr. Montague explained that skin is the largest sensory organ of the body, and the most important of all our organ systems. Describing twenty vital functions of the skin for survival, he also noted, “A human being can spend his life blind and deaf and completely lacking the senses of smell and taste, but he cannot survive at all without the functions performed by the skin. The experience of Helen Keller, who became deaf and blind in infancy, whose mind literally created through the stimulation of her skin, shows us that when other senses fail, the skin can to an extraordinary degree compensate for their deficiencies.” (p. 17) I listened from the back seat, completely engrossed, and purchased a copy of the book as soon as I could, and read it entirely.
During the pregnancy of my son in 1979 I bought the second edition. During this reading I especially noted his words about the sensitivity of the skin in utero as well as his conviction that the contractions of labor were essential stimulation for the brain of the newborn. From the beginning, I treated this growing life with wonder and conscious touch. Right through the final push of labor I was able to work with the process and remain (mostly) grateful, which helped me not to resist the pain.
My son Brian, aged twelve, was present when our cat gave birth. We watched as she clamped each kitten between her paws and licked vigorously. I explained what I learned from Dr. Montague, that the newborn animal must be licked if it is to survive. I also told him about his own birth. I would have missed these wonder-filled moments if Dr. Montague had not taught me about the significance of the skin.
In 1998, while in massage school, I devoured the third edition of Touching, and was reminded to treat the skin with profound reverence.
Walt Whitman was one of the few poets who celebrated the skin and touching. In his words: Mine is no callous shell./ I have instant conductors all over me whether I pass or stop,/ They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me./ I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers and am happy, / To touch my person to some one else’s is about as much as I can stand. (Leaves of Grass, “Song of Myself”)
In 1994 I wrote a letter to Dr. Montague thanking him for being such an important mentor. He responded with a hand-written letter – which I still have. I am forever grateful to him for teaching me that “touching at its best is an act of spiritual grace and a continuing human sacrament.”