- Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write Their Bodies
This is a remarkable book. At once a collection of strong individual voices and a coherently organized chorus, Stories of Illness and Healing achieves the often elusive goal of any serious anthology: it is much more than the sum of its parts—richer, more complex, and more provocative. This is not to suggest that the individual essays, stories, memoirs, and poems could not stand alone; many of them are by turns striking, moving, affecting, powerful, and disconcerting. But the editors’ intention clearly goes beyond the idea of an anthology as a convenience or a useful resource. They want the parallels and the juxtapositions of this volume to provoke discussion and suggest connections. They want to argue, through the voices in this volume, that women’s descriptions of their experiences with illness can teach us many things: they can teach us about illness and healing, about the experience of women in society, about possible directions for change in health care and policy, and about our understanding of health, caregiving, and gender. The editors also combine individual narratives with the scholarly writing of those who study narratives in medicine, creating a book that includes professional frameworks for understanding narratives and offers those narratives on their own terms, as well.
Thus, in the book’s first section, “Narratives of Body and Self: The Experience of Illness,” there are poems, essays, and even the transcript of an NPR segment that discuss individual experiences with illnesses ranging from arteriovenous malformation to cystic fibrosis, severe food allergy, rheumatoid arthritis, and mental illness. (And yes, I am perfectly aware that by listing these diverse and remarkable writings by “diagnosis,” I am in some ways marking myself as a doctor-reader—and I am aware, as well, that this kind of awareness is a layer of self-consciousness that the book intends to engender.) This section also contains a scholarly essay by Patricia B. Stanley, “The Female Voice in Illness: An Antidote to Alienation, a Call for Connection,” in which Stanley analyzes such stories, beginning with her own experience with her husband in a bone marrow transplant unit and moving on to other examples. “A focus on isolation in illness narratives” she writes, “reveals several kinds of isolation—isolation from the healthy, isolation from loved ones, and isolation from the body and the self” (23). Stanley’s academic and analytic tone is juxtaposed with direct and [End Page 89] personal voices that also comment on varieties of isolation. “We want to have faith that we are the authors of our own lives,” writes Lara Birk in “The Listening Room,” discussing a closely related subject, the ways in which people try to separate themselves from her by finding out a “cause” for her pain and her problems (38).
They want the tragic story, they crave it, but only when it leaves enough space for them to feel that things could have been different, better. That space is their listening room, where they can sit in a comfortable chair and project themselves into the scene and imagine all the ways they would have done things differently, all the signs they would have heeded that would have delivered them safely back home. Without that space, true listening is unbearable.(38)
The next section, “Narratives of Diagnosis and Treatment: Relationships to the Medical Community,” also includes an analytic essay, “The Negative Privilege of Women’s Illness Narratives,” by Arthur Frank, who has the distinction of being the only male writer included in the collection (speaking, perhaps, of negative privileges) and who discusses whether the medical system and its practitioners can be “forgiven” for errors, for arrogance, or for the incorporation of pain and suffering into everyday routine. Frank identifies the many kinds of discomfort and anger described by the authors of these illness narratives and wonders in his essay about the politics of gender in their encounters with medicine, commenting that “women arrive...