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  • Illness as Many Narratives: Arts, Medicine and Culture by Stella Bolaki
  • A. Elizabeth McKim
Bolaki, Stella. Illness as Many Narratives: Arts, Medicine and Culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2016 Pp. vii+ 255. £24.99 paperback; £70.00 hardcover.

Stella Bolacki's Illness as Many Narratives: Arts, Medicine and Culture is a "critical interloping" (13) into the field of medical humanities, which developed in the last few decades of the twentieth century as medical professionals began to incorporate perspectives from the humanities and social sciences into the practice of medicine in an effort to humanize what was perceived as its increasingly scientific and technological focus. Whether from the perspective of sociology, philosophy, literature, or medicine, the medical humanities have often centered on the literary illness narrative and the doctor-patient relationship. One of Bolacki's goals is to enlarge the field of narrative by including photography, artists' books, performance art, theatre, film, animation, and online narratives. Another is to redress what she sees as "limited," "instrumental," and "reductive" (3) methods of analysis in the medical humanities by creating "more sophisticated and interdisciplinary readings of health, illness and medicine" (3), bolstered by contemporary methods in literary and cultural studies. She argues for "the need of more cross-fertilisation and mutually illuminating conversations between contemporary arts and media practices/scholarship and the fields of illness narratives and the medical humanities, as well as between medicine and broader culture" (14).

To that end, Bolacki analyzes a series of artistic expressions in a variety of media. In Chapter One, "Re-Covering Scarred Bodies: Reading Photography," she focuses on the works of Jo Spence and Sam Taylor-Wood, both of whom created representations of their experience of breast cancer. The works of both artists, Bolacki maintains, "resist existing and often reductive narratives about women's health […] and create opportunities for the proliferation of feminist subjectivities" (48).

Chapter Two, "Artists' Books in the Medical Community," focuses on the work of Martha Hall, who created books that are "part narrative, part object, [and] part performance" (53). Bolacki argues that the books created during a decade-long experience of breast cancer that eventually metastasized serve both to empower and communicate, by "transforming the empty space or distance between [doctor and patient] into a space of proximity, and the silence (or the words on the page) into a form of contact through touch" (84).

Chapter Three, "Performance Medicine and Radical Pedagogy," focuses on the work of performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña. Performance encounters, Bolacki suggests, "address […] questions of social justice, democracy, human rights and community care which are often missing from medical ethics/humanities discussions" (89).

Chapter Four, "Collaborative Film as Terminal Care," carries on the theme of [End Page 684] performance and shifts the book's focus from individual to collaborative projects. Bolacki examines Wim Wenders's Nick's Film/Lightning over Water (1979-80), a documentary that deals with the cancer and death of his friend, the film's director Nicholas Ray. According to Bolacki, the film is at once an aesthetic object and the record of a painful shared experience.

Chapter Five, "Messy Confrontations: Theatre and Expert Knowledge," focuses on Lisa Kron's play Well (2004), which traces the playwright's and her mother's experiences with allergies. The play shares with Wenders's film an inherent contradiction between the authentic and shared account of personal suffering and the shaping of that account into art.

Chapter Six, "Animated Documentary and Mental Health," focuses on a series of short documentaries called Animated Minds (2003), which were collaboratively created for the purpose of increasing awareness of various forms of mental illness. The films combine actual personal accounts with animation, and the project as a whole "negotiates a […] tension between concealment and visibility" (22).

The Afterword considers the recent proliferation of illness narratives in social media, which lack the deliberate structuring of the verbal and visual narratives considered in the rest of the volume. Bolacki traces the strengths and weaknesses of the various types, from personal health blogs to Facebook and Twitter updates.

Bolacki's book presents a powerful argument for considering illness narratives across a wide range of media and for opening them to...


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pp. 684-685
Launched on MUSE
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