The concept of "bodies in a broken world" might remind us of the realities of our world today, but this book by Ann Folwell Stanford focuses on the problems of medicine and its possibilities for oppressed and poor people. The novels are written by women of "color." Many of the novels include traditional healing, as in my own book Healing Narratives; however, Stanford, as someone in Medical Humanities, concentrates on the potential role that biomedicine could serve within a social context to support people who have been left with broken bodies and communities. Stanford states that her book is not a "how-to [End Page 765] manual," but she suggests clearly that doctors need to hear from the voices of women writers of color.
The novels themselves do not answer specific questions to the problems, but Stanford feels that these works have "tracings of possibilities for medicine and society to rethink illness and health and their relationship to the community, as well as the connection between social justice and health" (11). Although the book does not deal with all oppressed groups in the US, Stanford usefully discusses African-American, Hispanic, and Native American cultures that have suffered from the oppression of the dominant society. The books range from famous novelists like Toni Morrison and Leslie Silko to lesser-known but excellent writers like Sandra Cisneros and Toni Cade Bambara. At the end, Stanford includes Octavia Butler's science fiction as a way to view the future and what will happen if we don't change the way medicine functions presently.
Stanford's aim is to show how medicine hurts and helps; still, many of the novels go beyond this concept, and some of the cultural aspects of traditional healing will never be accepted through a biomedical view. For example, Gloria Naylor's Mama Day explores the use of healing and fertilization through eggs, the obeah through cut hair, and response to the obeah through lightning striking twice. As Stanford says, "How does institutional medicine deal with mystery?" (139). But in this novel, traditional healing and the power of obeah is magic realism. In fact, rather than resisting Arthur Frank's critical perspective of "medical colonialism" (139), the husband George has a colonized view and is unable to help his wife Coco when she is obeahed by a jealous woman. George dies because of his inability to go beyond his "scientific" view. Elsewhere in the book, an exploration of Beloved by Toni Morrison offers a very limited view of this novel, analyzing questions of black women's "quiet starving and excessive eating" in relation to the dysfunctions of "middle class white women" (63).
However, the main emphasis of Bodies in a Broken World is on how medicine must change to make this a healthier society. Stanford explores interesting aspects of other novels as well as a dialogue between creative artists/writers and doctors, one that was lost in the seventeenth century. The Enlightenment ended the relationship between spirituality, culture and heath through a more rigid science; therefore, the sense of communal curing of cultural dis-ease was lost. Personal self-hate, as a kind of sickness beyond psychological illness, also causes broken bodies. In examining novels like Louise Erdrich's Tracks and Morrison's The Bluest Eye, Stanford states that "racism is the root of illness that has as one of its symptoms the desire to destroy or erase the body" (88). And in the chapter on domestic violence like Sapphire's Push, Stanford explores the lack of [End Page 766] involvement of the medical profession in the physical devastation of the violated. And there are other ways that progress in medicine is used in invalidating ways. The chapter on Leslie Silko's Almanac of the Dead, which is a very difficult book, does present an engaging reading of the novel in terms of the commodification of organ transplants. Stanford states that not "all bodies are rendered fodder for scientific and medical gain, but predictably, those that are deemed...