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Beyond Words

Illness and the Limits of Expression

Kathlyn Conway

Publication Year: 2013

“Kathlyn Conway opens primordial questions about the shattering events of illness through close readings of selected illness narratives, proposing that only writing of a daring kind can utter the knowledge of the self-telling body. Wielding her ferocious intellect and braving exposure to self and other, Conway makes original discoveries about writing and illness and, more stunningly, about writing and life. Not a book about illness, this is a book about writing and being. It is taut, brave, unequalled in our scholarship, and true. Conway joins our most powerful investigators of the human predicament of mortality, helping us to see, helping us to live.”—Rita Charon, Columbia University, Program in Narrative Medicine

Published accounts of illness and disability often emphasize hope and positive thinking: the woman who still looked beautiful after losing her hair, the man who ran five miles a day during chemotherapy. This acclaimed examination of the genre of the illness narrative questions that upbeat approach. Author Kathlyn Conway, a three-time cancer survivor and herself the author of an illness memoir, believes that the triumphalist approach to writing about illness fails to do justice to the shattering experience of disease. By wrestling with the challenge of writing about the reality of serious illness and injury, she argues, writers can offer a truer picture of the complex relationship between body and mind.

Published by: University of New Mexico Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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p. 4-4

Copyright Page

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pp. 5-7


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

At a time when the memoir rivals, and some would argue has replaced, the novel as America’s favorite literary genre, Kathy Conway offers a critical evaluation of autobiographical illness narratives. A psychotherapist attuned to the poignancy and problems of human communication who herself has experienced cancer diagnosis and treatment...

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pp. 1-16

My interest in illness narratives began in 1993 while I was receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer. Feeling devastated by the experience and unhelped by the many stories offered me as inspiration— the eighty-year-old woman who looked gorgeous after three cancers, the thirty-five-year-old who jogged five miles a day during chemo...

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1: The Cultural Story of Triumph

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pp. 17-40

What harm can there be in a story of triumph? A person battles a disease, overcomes numerous obstacles, and, in the end, returns to life having learned some important lessons. If anything this story seems to offer hope, providing inspiration and a model for how to act in the face of serious illness or accident. No wonder people are captivated...

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2: Character: The Damaged Self

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pp. 41-56

In The Noonday Demon Andrew Solomon offers this description of the collapse of self that characterized his depression:
Shortly before my thirty-first birthday, I went to pieces. My whole system seemed to be caving in. . . . On the way home from the store, I suddenly lost control of my lower intestine and soiled myself. I...

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3: Plot: The Disrupted Life

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pp. 57-74

Most of us have no idea what to say when someone is seriously ill, so we resort to platitudes: “I’m sure you’ll be back on your feet in no time” or “Just think about next summer when you will be playing tennis again.” Often we tell stories about our friends who also suffered devastating illnesses or injuries but who are now doing just fine...

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4: Searching for a Language

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pp. 75-98

How far can anyone go in describing what it is like to be seriously ill or disabled? How can a person represent bodily experience, discomfort, or pain? Or explain suffering, despair, loss, and the fear of dying? I remember my own illnesses, particularly the months of chemotherapy, when I would try to describe the experience—like...

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5: Narrative Form

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pp. 99-118

Just as writers struggle to ‹nd language to describe the experience of illness or injury, they search for ways to tell their story that capture the temporary or permanent disruption or break that illness or accident causes in their lives. Some resist telling a linear story and instead write essays or a narrative that is itself more circular or multilayered...

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6: Endings

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pp. 119-132

When Primo Levi threw himself down a stairwell in 1987, people refused to believe he had committed suicide. Although his books on the Holocaust were deeply disturbing in their depiction of the unimaginable horror played out daily in the concentration camp at Auschwitz, his story was generally read as a triumph narrative, that is...

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pp. 133-138

In his later years Edward Said, the writer and critic, living with his own diagnosis of cancer, became interested in the style of great writers and musicians at the end of their lives. Said acknowledged that certain artistic works live up to our “accepted notion of age and wisdom” in that they reflect “a special maturity, a new spirit of reconciliation...


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pp. 139-152


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pp. 153-162


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pp. 163-168

Back Cover

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p. 184-184

E-ISBN-13: 9780826353252
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826353245

Page Count: 184
Publication Year: 2013