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Being John Doe Malkovich: Truth, Imagination, and Story in Medicine

From: Literature and Medicine
Volume 25, Number 2, Fall 2006
pp. 439-462 | 10.1353/lm.2007.0003


In the context of evidence-based science, where all truth has become knowable though rigorous experimentation and interpretation, the ambiguity and complexity of patient stories render them too often at the margins of medical practice. Stories that are not corroborated by "scientific evidence" are "false" and their tellers deemed "bad historians." In the increasingly technical world of medicine, this logic is in danger of becoming extended to almost all patient stories. Efforts in medical education to honor stories of illness must grapple with the profession's vexed expectations of veracity in patient narratives. This essay will address the issues of truth, representation, and story in medicine with the goal of complicating medicine's understanding of patient narratives. This essay will use narrative cinema—Charlie Kaufman's unusual 1999 film Being John Malkovich—as well as the disciplines of oral history and trauma studies, to expand the frame around medicine's understanding of truth in illness stories.