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Narrative 10.1 (2002) 9-27

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The Story of "I":
Illness and Narrative Identity 1

Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan


November 1999

A bench on Hampstead Heath, overlooking London. I feel a bit like Rastignac, at the end of Le Père Goriot, pompously challenging Paris from the height of Père Lachaise cemetery: "A nous deux maintenant." Even more like the neurologist Oliver Sacks, recounting, toward the end of A Leg to Stand On, his ascent to Parliament Hill, one of the highest spots on the Heath, after the abyss into which he had been hurled by a neurological "hole in identity" (186), following a leg operation. To tell a story, it would seem, is to model it on previous stories--a point made before me and to which I shall return later. I am writing in a period of relative remission--thereby probably lending support, almost against my will, to the phoenix metaphor I have stubbornly resisted in Arthur W. Frank's stimulating 1993 essay on illness narratives. To this too I shall return later.

Illness. It happened in London, in the summer of 1998. I was spending a month there with my family, planning to stay for two additional months on my own to do research concerning my current project: the concept of narrative in various disciplines (historiography, psychoanalysis, legal studies). When I came out of the hairdresser's one day, everything seemed alarmingly blurred, objects looked doubled, angles askew, people cut in the middle. Within a short while, I realized that I could no longer read, since lines suddenly collapsed into each other. My eyelids would droop without any warning, and I lost a sense of distance, so that an approaching bus could [End Page 9] be quite near without my noticing. Tentative diagnosis: ocular myasthenia, an autoimmune neurological disease. Immediate result: I returned to Israel with my family after the first month, without doing any of the planned research.

Not the best illness for an academic, this interference with reading and writing (though I would be hard put to say which illness is best). 2 "A death blow" was my first reaction, followed by an "identity crisis." In retrospect, it seems to me that the sense of a rupture was caused by three main aspects of the condition: reading and writing, a professional necessity as well as an existential passion, have become virtually impossible. The need to control, both an asset and a problem in my professional and personal life, 3 has itself been controlled by the unpredictability of individual attacks as well as the course of the whole disease. Intensity, associated in my mind with experiencing things fully, fighting circumstances rather than succumbing to them, and an uncompromising "all or nothing" temperament, had to give way to an acceptance of life "on a small fire." The present text is an indirect working-through of my experience of discontinuity--indirect, because it is not a personal confession, but an exploration of the experience through a reading of other subjects' stories about their illnesses. Without denying embarrassment as a possible motive for indirection, it (also) seems to me that this approach is particularly suitable for illness narratives, because what is problematized in the textual corpus I examine is precisely the "auto" component of "autobiography." 4

The Scope of the Study

This study explores the interplay in illness narratives between continuity, its disruption, and the various ways of coping with the latter. What happens when the present is so different from the past that subjects experience themselves as "others"? And how does uncertainty about the future, or its blocking, affect the "identity" of ill subjects? How do ill subjects cope with the disruption of continuity? And how do they reconstruct their stories (to the extent that they do) as a result of the rupture? Is continuity replaced by a bipartite story, a "before" and "after," with an unbridgeable gap between them? Does the breaking of continuity sometimes lead to a more radical fragmentation, and if so--is the term "narrative" still applicable? Or, conversely, is narrative a way of creating...


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