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Reviewed by:
  • Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Lifewriting, and: The Body and Physical Difference: Discourses in Disability
  • Maia Saj Schmidt
G. Thomas Couser. Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Lifewriting. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997. 340 pp. Clothbound, $49.50. Paperback, $24.95.
David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, eds.The Body and Physical Difference: Discourses in Disability. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997. 320 pp. Clothbound, $49.50. Paperback, $17.95.

Reflecting on the medical gaze that has so dominated representations of illness and disability, two new studies suggest more humanistic approaches to the literature and culture of the ailing and disabled body. G. Thomas Couser’s Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Lifewriting offers a literary and cultural analysis of autobiographical narratives of illness. Following the lead of Anne Hunsaker Hawkins’s study of illness narratives, Reconstructing Illness: Studies in Pathography (1993), Couser narrows the scope of his study to the contemporary autobiographical literature of breast cancer, aids, paralysis, and deafness. By offering readings of a broad range of narratives within the parameters of autobiography and these four illnesses, this critical text functions well as an introduction to the study of contemporary autopathography. In contrast, David T. Mitchell and Sharon Snyder’s The Body and Physical Difference: Discourses in Disability anthologizes a wide variety of essays from the emerging field of disability studies. Bringing together the work of literary critics, historians, film critics, art historians, and cultural critics, this anthology offers rich and varied alternatives to scientific readings of disability and pushes disability studies into the forefront of cultural studies.

Recovering Bodies is a highly accessible study that merges literary and cultural criticism in an effort to contextualize the literature of illness and disability. In fact, Couser prefaces his work with a discussion of his efforts “to minimize discussion of methodology and the use of academic jargon” to make his study available to a larger audience (p. xv). His introduction provides an overview of the unprecedented growth in the publication of autopathography since 1950. As Couser traces sociohistorical reasons for this growth of autopathography, he explains his own motivation for studying illness narratives. He points to the compelling nature of these texts and to the fact that, despite their liminal status in relation to literary studies, more and more established writers are experimenting with life writing via illness narratives.

As a pioneer in the literary criticism of autopathography, Couser establishes the primary goal of autopathography as the development of [End Page 301] a counterdiscourse to more purely medical viewpoints of illness. Couser argues that the power of medicine in our society depends on “the medicalization of society and the concomitant granting of a virtual monopoly on diagnosis and treatment of illness to trained specialists” (p. 18). He suggests that a counterdiscourse made up of patient accounts of illness is necessary to the representation of illness, because medical discourse, purportedly “the language of healing, may be at times counterproductive” (p. 19). He elaborates his position with references to a constellation of doctors, medical ethicists, anthropologists, and medical educators who all believe strongly in the importance of respecting patients’ stories.

“Self-Reconstruction: Personal Narratives of Breast Cancer” is the first of the four disease sections defining the text. In it, Couser characterizes the “important cultural work” of breast cancer narratives (p. 37). He notes that “[m]ore than the narratives of many other diseases...narratives of breast cancer generally have a public mission, an agenda that is in some sense political” (p. 37). Couser establishes that breast cancer narratives have been written by a wide variety of authors, from movie star Jill Ireland to feminist activist Audre Lorde. Part of Couser’s project is to determine how specific illnesses affect the shape of their narratives. He argues convincingly that breast cancer narratives are informed by the way the cancer is “detected, diagnosed, and treated” more than by the “progress” of the disease (p. 42). Besides establishing generic conventions for breast cancer narratives as a whole, Couser proceeds to provide short analyses of ten distinct narratives written during the last twenty-five years, including such texts as Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals, Juliet Wittman’s Breast Cancer Journal: A Century...

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pp. 301-305
Launched on MUSE
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