- The Mind’s Eye: Image and Memory in Writing about Trauma
Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy opens her new book, The Mind’s Eye: Image and Memory in Writing about Trauma, with an apt quote by Ray Bradbury—“writing is survival”—and she then shows, systematically and persuasively, the truth of his words (ix). She reveals early in the book how writing about her grief following her husband’s unexpected death made her own survival possible. Would personal writing, she wondered, similarly help her undergraduate students at Ithaca College, where she teaches? The answer is a resounding “Yes.” The Mind’s Eye is the culmination of MacCurdy’s many years of classroom experience teaching writing courses. She cites several authors who have acknowledged how writing has made their own survival possible, including Alice Walker: “It is, in the end, the saving of lives that we writers are about . . . the life we save is our own” (1).
Although MacCurdy’s argument about the relationship of writing and healing is not new to the medical humanities, this text is worthy of the field’s attention for several reasons. When MacCurdy defends her position against those who oppose the use of personal writing in the classroom, she provides substantial evidence that this practice has striking medical and psychological benefits. She acknowledges the challenges of teaching personal writing and provides guidance on how to steer clear of the most serious risks. She also provides practical and tested advice for those who teach classes or run workshops in which participants compose personal writing.
Because personal writing is generally accepted in the medical humanities as a valuable practice for patients and clinicians, it may be shocking to discover the widespread opposition to teaching personal writing by scholars in MacCurdy’s own field of rhetoric and composition, those who typically design and oversee curriculum for college writing classes. To cite only one of her examples, David Bartholomae claimed in two influential articles from the 1990s that the personal essay is a “‘corrupt, if extraordinarily tempting genre’ because it makes students . . . [End Page 82] ‘blind to tradition, power, and authority as they are present in language and culture’” (Quoted in The Mind’s Eye 75). Other opponents of personal writing have expressed different criticisms, namely, that professors (1) coerce students into inappropriate self-disclosure; (2) usurp the role of psychotherapist, for which they have not been trained; (3) encourage their students to make up traumatic stories to “please” their teachers; (4) exploit their students’ vulnerabilities, leading in some cases to psychological breakdowns; and (5) dissolve professional boundaries, which, among other things, can result in inappropriate sexual relationships. Thus, the opposition marginalizes teachers of personal writing by dismissing them as naive and idealistic, at best, and as narcissistic and predatory, at worst. Ironically, personal writing courses continue to survive in an age when the personal and the emotional are viewed with so much mistrust. “Writers have been telling their stories all over the country,” MacCurdy observes wryly, “while the pedagogy of the personal essay undergoes little scrutiny because many teachers are understandably too nervous to reveal what their students are actually writing about” (4).
Throughout The Mind’s Eye, MacCurdy is aware of the potential pitfalls of teaching personal writing and provides advice on how to avoid them. “The benefits of self-disclosure do not negate the problems associated with it,” she points out early in the book: “For all the right reasons writing teachers worry about the ethical, moral, and legal issues inherent in this kind of pedagogy” (3). She reminds us repeatedly that teachers are not therapists: “While the work can at times look similar—we listen to students, we actively participate in the process of the construction of a therapeutic narrative, we care about them as people—our job is to focus on the text, not the life, to help writers produce effective work” (6). She asserts that self-disclosure can be encouraged but should never be required, that it is essential for students to choose whether they...