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  • The Physician as Witness: A Response
  • Kali Tal (bio)

Narrative is powerful, and doctors are no less attracted to storytelling than the rest of us. These three articles—“The Witnessing Imagination,” “‘I don’t actually mind the bone saw,’” and “Daughters of Æsculapius”—all share the urge to order the universe by telling tales about it, though they relate very different stories in very different ways.

“Daughters of Æsculapius” is actually a collection of narratives, what those in the literary field would call an annotated bibliography documenting the autobiographies of women doctors. The least complicated of the three articles, “Daughters” is a text of origins, a list of begats that female physicians can consult to find their roots. Sirridge and Pfannenstiel offer no critical analysis of any of the texts they describe, but instead attempt to document the history of women in medicine through testimony, pointing the reader to the source material. Women doctors, they demonstrate, have been telling their stories for over one hundred years, testifying both to their trials and tribulations, and to their triumphs. Because it is a bibliography and not an essay, “Daughters” can only point to other works (an important task), but it cannot tell us what the commonalities and differences are in the stories of these women, or place these texts in any sort of social, cultural, or political context. Such work, we must assume, is left to the reader inspired by texts addressed in the bibliography. Those readers will find a vast body of feminist literature on women’s autobiography that they can connect with other contemporary women’s writing, as Elizabeth Blackwell was connected to sister feminists like Lucy Stone and Lucretia Mott. The bibliography, without context, lends itself to the idea that these early women physicians were a breed apart, whereas they were often deeply involved in larger social movements such as those for women’s rights or the Progressive political movement of the early [End Page 217] 1900s. For women such as Josepine Baker, for example, medicine was a form of activism and not an end in itself.

In Reifler’s essay on student writing about Gross Anatomy class, I was impressed by his attention to the process of narrativizing unpleasant, or even traumatic events. Clearly, Reifler’s students are forced to think through their actions and their emotions in Gross Anatomy, and his exercises are geared to enhance their progress. His identification of recurring themes, such as “surprising physical aspects of the cadavers,” distancing, and a “sense of strangeness” about the dissection are interesting to me, particularly since they mirror the reactions of the combat veterans whose writing I have studied for the past decade. All three themes are ubiquitous in war novels, and the similarity should lead us to question the (perhaps deliberate) parallels between medical training and combat. I found these themes most effectively expressed in work by W. D. Ehrhart, Gustav Hasford, and Charles Durden, and they are surely apparent in the novels of Erich Remarque, Ernest Hemingway, and James Jones.

Stevan Weine does draw those parallels in his article, “The Witnessing Imagination,” when he asserts that it is the responsibility of doctors to become “witnessing professionals.” The most theoretical article of the three, “The Witnessing Imagination” argues that it is the special duty of health care providers to tell the stories of survivors, and to “bear witness” to their experiences. It is unfortunate that Weine relies so heavily on the work of Jonathan Shay and of Dori Laub and Shoshana Felman, however, since his arguments share the weaknesses of those texts. 1 Like Felman and Laub, Weine tends to appropriate the position of the survivor, and, like Shay, his analysis is hampered by a naive view of testimony as unmediated access to “truth.”

Until recently, the title of witness to a genocide (or to any other event) was accorded to those who had firsthand experience of an atrocity. Lately, however, the title has expanded to fit (or been appropriated by) those who have only a mediated experience with the traumatic event. Instead of experiencing, for Weine, “To witness is to see, to know, and to be engaged with an other’s experience of traumatization, in...

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pp. 217-220
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