ILLNESS AS NARRATIVE

 

Ann Jurecic’s new book, Illness as Narrative, offers substantive confirmation of the continuing scholarly trends in support of the genre of narrative medicine and for the primary value of the patient’s voice  in the practice of medicine. As an assistant professor of English at Rutgers, she demonstrates her seamless erudition and scholarship in a critical close reading and examination of a range of literary responses to the salient work of Susan Sontag, Elaine Scarry, Eve Sedgwick, Reynolds Price and Ann Fadiman.
Jurecic is a mindful reader and she successfully provides a succinctly written arc of the emergence of illness narratives in the twentieth century. ” She writes.” As this overview of the evolving genre of illness memoirs has shown, throughout the past century Americans have increasingly turned to writing to explore the meaning of illness and suffering, and they are more often choosing to make these narratives public in books, magazines, and now online.”

Certainly, as a blogger I have witnessed the proliferation of e-patient forums and the exponential number of blogs addressing illness. Furthermore, there are websites like Dying, Surviving, And Aging With Grace that chronicles the increasing number of  illness memoirs published over the past three decades.

In Illness as Narrative, the author understands very well that the intersection of literature and medicine has ushered in literary theories in the works of Rita Charon, Arthur Frank and Anne Hunsaker Hawkins “that respects the irreducibility of the writer’s body.” I am confronting this issue as I attempt to compile an anthology of poems and stories submitted in response to a medical humanities symposia I held last fall on illness narratives.
These personal responses, couched in a myriad of  illness metaphors cannot be so narrowly compartmentalized into set categories or classifications requested by the publisher. For the poet who suffers an illness or the family member that witnesses this broken story, it’s the rendering of the scene or moment that matters. For sure, it’s an artful representation that must be appreciated.

Professor Jurecic in response to an email question about her own focus on illness narratives, revealed that it’s hard to pinpoint one single answer. Nevertheless, she writes.

” There was a series of events in my personal life that motivated the ideas in Illness as Narrative. The arguments in that book emerged as I became aware of a disturbing division between my professional work with narrative and my personal experience. In the 8 years during which my husband was diagnosed with cancer, a recurrence, a second type of cancer, and another recurrence, I was acutely aware of the stories that circulated in waiting rooms, hospital hallways, as well as in 20th century and contemporary literature.”

Jurecic deftly reveals with compassion and humility that there was a disconnect between her training in literary criticism and the efficacy of these illness stories overheard in waiting rooms as she patiently waited with her husband.

Both of us happen to be teaching undergraduates who express interest in the courses in Literature and Medicine.  One of my  students, Lacey Taylor, wrote  a compelling and poignant personal essay, “Weave Us Together”  on her work with autistic children at a summer camp and I am including in a compilation of poems and stories on illness.

Professor Jurecic recognizes that her students, especially the non-science-oriented English majors also benefit from connecting their expertise in language and literature to the “real world” of embodied experience and healthcare.

Her book is a must read for all Literature and Medicine courses and certainly will be added to Medical Humanities programs around the country. In her summary paragraph, Jurecic reveals her compassionate and critical skills as she addresses Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You.

” While I have learned from how others have written about Fadiman’s text, in my own conclusion I have tried to attend to the moon toward which Fadiman points. In this narrative of illness, as in many others, the ailing body points to culture, pain points to philosophy, language points to consciousness, and all point to what is still to be learned about our fragility, our mortality, and how to live a meaningful life.”

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