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  • Breaking Silences
  • Suzanne Poirier (bio)

The articles, essays, and creative work in this general issue all, fortuitously, deal with aspects of the same subject: cultural taboos surrounding illness and the ways in which art allows us to break those taboos. The emotional threat that death poses to physicians as well as patients, the physical and psychological effects of social mores on women who act outside their prescribed roles, the Pandora’s box of sexual fears that are opened by the presence of syphilis or something as natural as menstruation—all of these issues are explored in the following pages. Moreover, these authors, artists, and scholars who dare to speak about the unspeakable also find that in the act of speaking lies one means to confrontation, contemplation, and, sometimes, healing.

The issue presents three scholarly articles about authors across time and from around the world who seek to write about, respectively, death, venereal disease, and alcoholism; an artist who finds that she must mix the medical and the mundane to make sense of the alienation she has often felt from her own body; a group of junior-high playwrights who use drama to help a classmate—and themselves—face the unimaginable violence of childhood cancer; and a collection of medical students who turn to storytelling in search of meaning in their often overwhelming medical education. Taken together, these articles demonstrate the power of fear to isolate us and of art to unite us.

In “Confronting Immortality: The Iliad’s Androktasiai,” Anne Hunsaker Hawkins examines the form in which Homer portrays the deaths of over three hundred warriors in battle. She describes how the grisliest of deaths are always accompanied by lines that tell of the soldier’s home and family, often naming them, and how the use of simile serves to express the tragedy of a brave life cut short or the brutality of death. Hawkins, in fact, sees the Iliad as a poem as much about death and the fact of mortality than it is about the Trojan war. In this way, she shows us its relevance to modern medicine in today’s hospitals—battlefields in their own right. Homer, she suggests, can teach modern medical warriors how to bring “imaginative understanding” to help them in the midst of the too brutal realism of their fight. [End Page vii]

Across several centuries and continents, Carl Ostrowski takes up “sexual sin” in “The Minister’s ‘Grievous Affliction’: Diagnosing Hawthorne’s Parson Hooper.” Ostrowski challenges previous interpretations of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous short story, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” by arguing that the veil that Parson Hooper donned one day and wore until his death is not merely symbolic of humanity’s sinfulness, as Hooper proclaimed, but actually a veil to hide Hooper’s own secret: the ravages of syphilis upon his face. Placing the story within society’s secrecy about and abhorrence of syphilis at that time, Ostrowski reads Hooper’s act of masking himself as an ingenious way of marking his body so as to invite conjecture about all of humanity’s sins—except for his own. Similarly, by being forced by his times to write about syphilis in an equally veiled way, Hawthorne used the symbolism and ambiguity for which he is so well-known to confront his society with its own fears and harsh behaviors.

The third article in this issue, Ellen Lansky’s “Female Trouble: Dorothy Parker, Katherine Anne Porter, and Alcoholism,” brings us into the twentieth century and our recent efforts to understand the nature of alcoholism in general and female alcoholism in particular. Lansky looks at the lives and writing of two notable women who embodied two taboos for women of their time: they were alcoholics and professional writers. She describes the complex interplay of alcohol and writing in these women’s personal lives and analyzes how these writers show the problems female alcoholics face in, respectively, “Big Blonde” and Ship of Fools. Lansky argues that it was harder for these fictional women than for their creators to escape social condemnation because Parker and Porter, however despairing they may often have been for their own lives, were able to find some solace and respite in...

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