- Unfitting Stories: Narrative Approaches to Disease, Disability, and Trauma
The essays contained in Unfitting Stories emerge from a five-year research project conducted at the University of British Columbia and funded by the Peter Wall Institute of Advanced Studies. The project, multidisciplinary in scope, convened professionals in the health and social sciences and humanities at various fora to exchange ideas about the role of narrative in the experience and representation of trauma, disability, and disease. The result is a compendium of papers that examine the function of narrative from three broad perspectives, corresponding to the book’s three sections: first, the aesthetic framing of traumatic event and/or illness and disability in literary text or film; second, the therapeutic value of storytelling in research, clinical, and psychiatric settings; and finally, the impact of broader cultural metanarratives on individuals’ experiences and definitions of suffering, recovery, identity, and difference.
Essays in the first section, “Public Framing of Personal Narratives,” which address memoir, fiction, poetry, and film, demonstrate authors’ use of literary or cinematic techniques to challenge conventional ways of packaging—which tend in turn to minimize or marginalize—trauma and illness. One important through-line in these essays is the relationship between artistic production and agency, and the idea that writing “about one’s life” can become a matter [End Page 744] of “writing for one’s life” (62), to quote Barbara Havercroft, inflects several of them. Discussing Lauren Slater’s multiple illness narratives, for instance, Helen M. Buss refers to Slater’s manipulation of standard memoir form as “creative survivorship” (43), and a similar assessment is made by Hilary Clark in her chapter on Nancy Mairs and Susanna Kaysen, both of whom break with linear narrative to represent the “traumatizing and shaming effects” (52) of psychiatric hospitalization and to “ensure a healing testimony” (51). (Mairs herself has made the claim that writing saved her life.) The notion of autobiography as testimony is at the core of Lisa Diedrich’s chapter on AIDS and the work of Paul Monette, as well as the co-written chapter by Heidi Janz and Julie Rak on disability narratives in which memoirists expose the damage done to them by ableist beliefs and practices.
The effort to reclaim self-authorship from the powers of discourse, institution, medical or psychiatric community, or family dysfunction leads some artists in more explicitly fictionalized directions than the memoirists named above. Havercroft calls Geneviève Brisac’s Petite “autofictional” (62), for example, and, linking the “skeletal style” (65) of the text to the anorexia recounted therein, suggests that Brisac’s euphemistic and elliptical aesthetic allows her to reveal painful experience while also doing the work of recovery and repair. Ulrich Teucher goes further, insisting not simply that self-written illness narrative may be limited in its therapeutic usefulness, but even (at least for cancer patients) that “writing about one’s own cancer experience can be dangerous” (78). Teucher does offer a compelling discussion of an untranslated autobiographical novel (Maja Beutler’s Fuss Fassen), where the process of fictionalizing enabled the author both to subvert readerly expectations about the “victimhood” of cancer patients (75), and to capture what Teucher calls the “density” (72) of experiences so traumatic or life-altering as to seem unrepresentable. But his assertion that self-writing about cancer can be “so dangerous that one should not indiscriminately recommend it to everyone” (78) seems inflammatory—it is the only false note in this section—and is both unsubstantiated in his own essay and disproven by other chapters in the volume.
While one might take exception to Teucher’s claim that “a literary testimony . . . approximate[s] the personal experience of illness and trauma much more closely than factual autobiography” (75; my emphasis)—in part because that distinction between literary and factual seems untenable—the two essays on film in this section do suggest the ways in which symbolization can work powerfully to convey particularly egregious life events, such as incest and war...