Showing 1 - 10 of 55 annotations contributed by Carter, III, Albert Howard

Summary:

This illuminating and disturbing book explores how various forms of white supremacy became expressed in policies, laws, and elected officials, such as Donald Trump. Physician and sociologist Metzl details social changes in Missouri, Tennessee, and Kansas, where white Americans backed changes that, ironically, dramatically harmed them with gun suicides, school dropouts, worse healthcare, and shorter life spans. For Metzl, “Whiteness” refers not to skin color but to a political and economic system of white privilege.

Metzl's thesis that: “Trump supporters were willing to put their lives on the line in support of their political beliefs” was, in fact, a sort of “self-sabotage” (pp. 5-6). While a conservative political movement fostered white racial resentment, largely in lower-income communities, the mainstream GOP did its part by crafting policies against the Affordable Care Act, higher taxes, and restrictions on guns. An atmosphere of polarization and political stasis grew. Metzl writes: “Compromise, in many ways, coded as treason” (p. 11).  

Metzl focuses on the examples of Missouri, Tennessee, and Kansas to “suggest how the racial system of American fails everyone” (pp. 16, 20). He visits each state, leading focus groups, interviewing formally and informally, reading newspapers, and inductively formulating concepts that seem to explain the nonsensical behavior of rejecting helpful programs. For example, because “risk” in Missouri has become a code name for possible attacks by black people, white people buy guns, especially when restrictions are removed. Many white men feel that a gun (or many guns) restores their privilege, but suicide of white males, often low-income, goes up. Metzl’s statistics and charts show contrasts with other states with stricter laws and lower suicide rates. He calls for preventive medicine to lower such deaths.  

For Tennessee, the Affordable Care Act offered many benefits to poor or middle-income people, but Republicans (and especially Trump) attacked it as big government over-reach, socialism, exorbitant cost, a program that would help minority people, for example “welfare queens.” “Cost” became a proxy for the “we don’t like it,” even when the economics would be favorable for good healthcare for all. Blacks were generally in favor of ACA, but white blue-collar men swore by their independence and autonomy. Neighboring Kentucky accepted ACA, and ten graphs included in the book clearly chart the better outcomes for Kentucky in such areas as insurance coverage, death rates, and seeing a doctor.  

Metzl returns to Kansas, where he grew up and recalls the pride Kansans had in their state. Republican Governor Sam Brownback enacted massive tax cuts with large reductions to state services and school funding, an “experiment” in “epic defunding.” The GOP, Tea Party, Koch brothers, and “trickle down” theories all played a part in benefiting the wealthy financially, while minority and lower-income groups paid more. Infrastructure, such as roads, suffered. Untested charter schools collected wealthy white students, while public schools plunged in funding, test scores, and graduation rates (see 17 graphs). Since education is a predictor of health, there are and will be long-term costs to Kansans, especially for minority groups.  

Metzl attacks the “Castle Doctrine” (“a man’s home is…”) as a symbol of narcissism, individualism, and as a risk for all citizens when social structures are abandoned. He closes with some hopeful examples of social change for the better.

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction — Secondary Category: Literature /

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

Louise Aronson, a geriatrician, argues that we should create Elderhood as the third era of human aging, joining the earlier Childhood and Adulthood. This new concept will allow us to re-evaluate the richness of this later time, its challenges as body systems decline, and, of course, the choices of managing death. This important and valuable book is a polemic against modern medicine’s limits, its reductive focus, and structural violence against both patients and physicians. She argues for a wider vision of care that emphasizes well-being and health maintenance for not only elders but for every stage of life.   
          
Aronson argues that contemporary society favors youth and values of action, speed, and ambition, while it ignores—even dislikes—aging, older people, and the elderly. She says ageism is more powerful than sexism or racism—as bad as those are. Medical schools ignore the elderly, focusing on younger patients, especially men, and medical students perceive geriatrics as boring, sad, and poorly paid. Primary care, in general, seems routine and dull. By contrast, medical treatments, especially high-tech, are exciting and lucrative. In medical schools a “hidden curriculum” focuses on pathophysiology, organ systems, and drugs, ignoring patients’ variability as well as their suffering and pathos. Further, business and industrial models make “healthcare” a commodity, and nowadays “doctors treat computers, not people” (p. 237). Aging has become “medicalized” as a disease. Medicine fights death as an enemy, often with futile treatment that may extend a dying process.
        
Instead, Aronson says we need to bring back the human element, putting care of people at the center, not science. She calls for a new paradigm with ten assumptions (p. 378). Number 2 reads: “Health matters more to both individuals and society than medicine.” Number 9 claims, “As an institution, medicine should prioritize the interests of the people over its own.”  
      
Many practical changes would follow, from redesigned “child-proof” drug containers to buildings and public spaces that are more congenial to older people—and, in fact, to everyone else. We should change our attitudes about old age. For example, we might use the adjective “silver” for a medical facility that is friendly to and usable by older people. Changing our attitudes about aging can help all of us imagine more positive futures for each one of us and for all of our society.

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The Scar is a powerful, thoughtful, and moving book, part memoir about the author’s illness across some 30 years, part history of depression and its treatment and part essay to evoke cultural and personal values about sickness, suffering, health, and death. Cregan, a gifted stylist herself, draws on literature that deals with human suffering, mortality, and wisdom.  She frankly describes her sorrows and hopes, the death of her baby, her attempts to kill herself, and her survival today with many blessings.   
           
The title refers to a scar on her neck, a result of her effort to cut her throat with a piece of glass so that she would die. This attempt, in a hospital, reflects the depth of her illness and the failure of her caregivers to prevent it. Her book explores the complexity and variety of mental patients and the range of medical responses—some useful, some not—to  treat them. Writing as a survivor, she draws on her journal, hospital records, emails, interviews, and more; she is part journalist, detective, archivist, and forensic pathologist—as if doing an autopsy on the suicide she attempted.
 
Ch. 1
What Happened describes the birth and immediate death of her daughter Anna and her descent into depression and initial hospitalization.

Ch. 2
What Happened Next discusses mental hospitals and her perceptions of being a patient in one. A dramatic paragraph describes her cutting her throat (p. 51).

Ch. 3
How to Save a Life presents electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), from the jarring images of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to her own experience of some 17 treatments; she reports that these helped in recovery.

Ch. 4
The Paradise of Bedlams gives a history of mental hospitals. She is hospitalized three months, “a prisoner,” in her term.

Ch. 5
Where Do the Dead Go? explores the dilemmas of the living as they mourn the deaths of people they love, including approaches from Judaism and Christianity. Mary has nightmares about her lost baby. She discusses Freud, Rilke, T. S. Eliot and others. She buries Anna’s ashes.

Ch. 6
Early Blues discusses modern attempts of science and the pharmaceutical industry to create drugs for mental illnesses, with influences from psychodynamic and biological concepts.

Ch. 7
The Promise of Prozac discusses that famous (notorious?) drug; she takes it on and off while working on her PhD, then other drugs as they became available.

Ch. 8
No Feeling Is Final sums up many themes.  She’s in her late 30s, remarried, and trying to conceive. After IVF, she’s pregnant. Baby Luke is born. She understands that the scar on her neck has an analogue with Odysseus’ scar on his leg: a symbol of survival through hard, even desperate times, for her a “double trauma: the loss of my child, the loss of myself”  (p. 243).  

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Summary:

This is a gripping, informative, and well-researched book about human blood. An accomplished journalist, Rose George, covers a variety of topics, largely in the U.S., Britain, and Canada but also in Nepal, India, and South Africa. She describes many current issues, provides historical background, and speculates on future technologies, such as replacement of blood by other fluids. There are nine sections:

 “My Pint”  While the book’s title refers to the author's volume of blood, this chapter’s title refers to a single pint she is donating. We read about blood supply (donated and stored blood) in the U.S. and—by contrast—in India.

“The Most Singular and Valuable Reptile” refers to the leech. This arresting chapter describes both historical and  modern uses of leeches to gather blood from humans. She visits a company called Biopharm in Wales where leeches are raised and prepared for shipment to medical clinics and hospitals.  

 “Janet and Percy” is a historical chapter focusing on Dame Janet Maria Vaughan, a central figure in creating the Blood Transfusion Service in England during WWII and Percy Oliver, who guided its predecessor, the London Blood Transfusion Service.  

“Blood Borne.”  This chapter describes Khayelitsha, South Africa, “the ugly backside of Cape Town” (p. 100): a place of poverty, crime, rape, sexual predation, and HIV. While rich nations provide assessment and treatment for people with HIV, poor nations have many citizens infected with the virus and, over time, rising rates of infection. 

 “The Yellow Stuff” describes the plasma portion of blood; it can be frozen (as FFP) and used as a filler for bleeding or trauma patients. Unlike blood—which can only be given without payment—plasma can be collected from paid donors. It is a largely traded commodity, part of a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide. Plasma carries Factor VIII, a crucial protein for clotting blood; hemophiliacs lack this and are at risk for death by bleeding externally or internally. Some plasma has been tainted, for example by HIV.

“Rotting Pickles.”  In Western Nepal (and other places), menstruation is taboo. George writes, “We are in a minority among species, and among mammals, to bleed every month.” She reviews historical views of women’s periods, mostly negative. Worldwide, there are many taboos, but also some educational efforts for public health that are helpful in impoverished areas.  

 “Nasty Cloths.” This tells the unusual story of an Indian man named Muruga, “a poorly educated workshop helper” who became a leader in creating sanitary protection for menstruating women. Worldwide, the feminine hygiene industry is some $23 billion. George also reviews related history, including Toxic Shock Syndrome from tampons.  

 “Code Red.” Bleeding is often a fatal factor in trauma, even with the best efforts to transfuse blood into the patient, unit after unit. George observes open chest techniques at a resuscitation. She reviews breakthroughs in blood typing, component therapy, and “buddy transfusions.”  

“Blood like Guinness: The Future.” George starts with images from the past: vampires, human drinkers of blood, past and, even, present. She interviews a purveyor of the concept that “young blood” is healthier than older blood. Can there be, discovered or created, blood substitutes that also save lives? 

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

This intelligent and compelling book invites us to evaluate the losses pertaining to “modern death” and to consider better ways—whether from the past or in the future—to care for the dying, their families, and all care-givers.   
            
Some chapters, such as “How Life (and Death) Were Prolonged,” are historical, describing changes in inoculations, living conditions, and medical care that extended the human life span but also changes in dying, now often prolonged by technology. Another chapter, “How We Learned Not to Resuscitate,” relates how CPR, initially lauded and popularized, is now widely understood as futile care, especially in older people. Warraich discusses various attempts to define death (brain-based, heart-based, American Bar Association, Harvard Criteria, Uniform Determination of Death Act, even NASA) and some of the issues that still remain. 
 

Other chapters are more physiological:  “How Cells Die” explains natural processes of cell death (necrosis, autophagy, and apoptosis). Most non-medical readers haven’t heard of these and perhaps some medical personnel as well. Unaware of them as regular and usual processes, we resolutely expect people to live some four-score and ten, perhaps even more. The next-to-last chapter, “When the Plug is Pulled” discusses “terminal sedation” (a legal dosage that eases pain but is not strictly speaking euthanasia or murder) and statutes that allow for assisted death and removal of life-sustaining machines. The Nancy Cruzan case and others illustrate many difficulties. (Cruzan was in a persistent vegetative state and supported by a feeding tube. A 1990 U.S. Supreme Court 5-4 decision allowed the removal of the tube.) Warraich argues further for “patients’ right to demand and acquire the means to end their suffering with the aid of a physician” (p. 263).              

Lack of resolution of these difficulties leads to problems for families of the dying and all medical personnel attending them, especially in ICU situations. Living wills are often of no help and “the end of life has become a battleground” (p. 211).
He argues that surrogate roles for decisions at the end of a life often do not represent what the patient actually wanted because the surrogate's values may be different from the patient's and family members may not reach agreement on decisions. He concludes, “All in all, overinvolved family and underinvolved doctors unsurprisingly make for a particularly caustic combo” (p.214).                      

In “When Death Transcends” we read that spiritual and religious matters are often ignored in medical settings. Such resources, however, “may be the only means that patients have of finding comfort” (p. 148). Warraich surveys various religions, including his own, Islam. This is one of the longest chapters in the book and carefully considers the wide range of faiths people have and the regrettable lack of training for doctors in this area.
           

Warraich concludes, “Death needs to be closer to home, preceded by lesser disability and less isolation” (p. 278). For deaths to be “truly modern,” we need to push past taboos and misunderstandings about death. 

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

This important and much needed book describes the psychological difficulties of doctors in training and in practice and the woeful lack of support to them from teachers, colleagues, and institutions. When there are over 50 percent of doctors suffering burnout (or depression, even suicide), shouldn't we see and ameliorate this "significant public health crisis" (p. 263)?
Carolyn Elton is a vocational psychologist who has spent the last 20 years working with doctors in England and the U.S.  She has worked with over 600 doctors in a wide variety of specialties. 
  
 
Introduction: “Medicine in the Mirror”
Elton starts with a real-life email from a desperate medical student. She cites examples of med. students who commit suicide, studies of depressed doctors, and surveys that show impacts on medical care for all of us when it is given by doctors suffering from poor morale.

Ch. 1, "Wednesday's Child" discusses young doctors suddenly thrown into clinical practice; many are unready for the stress, and many training programs do not support them sufficiently.

Ch. 2,  "Finding the Middle." Many senior doctors are inhospitable to young doctors, especially those trained in other countries, for example India. There’s hope for sharing and support in  Schwartz Rounds, where staff (clinical and nonclinical) meet and discuss issues.

Ch. 3,  "Which Doctor." We learn that many troubled doctors have chosen the wrong specialty for them, often because of a specific illness in their families. They should have more time to chose or, even, to change specialties.

Ch. 4, "Brief Encounter."  Psychological concepts of transference and counter-transference are helpful in understanding sexual issues (examining patients' sex organs, homosexuality, sexism, inappropriate humor, attraction to a patient, even past sexual abuse). Many of these are common but so taboo that they are ordinarily—and unfortunately—not discussed in training. 


Ch. 5, “Role Reversal.” The book’s title “also human” is front and center here, because doctors become sick, injured, or otherwise compromised so that they must have medical assistance. Regrettably, other doctors often dismiss such problems or even blame the doctor for causing them or not overcoming them. Further, doctors often try to avoid a sick role. Psychological dilemmas and physical disabilities are often stigmatized.

Ch. 6, “Leaky Pipes.” Women doctors are often ill-treated, especially in surgery, where “surgical culture embodies masculinity” (p. 152). Women wishing to have children and family life in general are seen as slackers. Women doctors often “leak out” from hospital work to part-time community-based roles.


Ch. 7, “Risky Business.” Once again, we read that there is bias against Asian, black, disabled, or female doctors.  Specific examples and studies from social science make this dramatically clear. This unfortunate dynamic makes careers in medicine for such doctors “psychologically risky” (p. 192).

Ch. 8, “No Exit.” For many reasons it is hard to quit medical school, later training, or work in medicine, even when this is the best choice. Doctors often feel pain, even guilt when patients die, and they have little support.

Ch. 9, “Natural Selection.” Reviewing many problems already discussed, Elton summarizes: “sometimes the dream of training as a doctor turns out to be a nightmare in reality” (p. 229).  There’s bias in selection of students, reliance on tests with limited accuracy, insensitivity to the whole person, and inappropriate retention of students who should not become doctors. The Darwinian chapter title is ironic; much of the medical world as structured today is not natural.

Epilogue, “There’s No Such Thing as a Doctor.” This arresting subtitle brings us back to the personhood of doctors, who have psychological needs right along with the rest of us. Regrettably, “doctors’ psychological needs are denied, ignored, not thought about. Unmet” (p. 258). Sexism and racism are common. Lister’s reforms took a long time but are now pervasive and standard; can we similarly expand better care for doctors?  “Improving the emotional well-being of the medical workforce requires interventions that tackle three interconnected levels—the individual, the organization, and the culture of medicine as a whole” (p. 265).

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Summary:

This entertaining and wide-ranging book discusses the importance of the human foot and many related topics. There are five alliteratively named chapters.  

1. Destiny

Drawing on anthropological research, Rinzler discusses the deep history of humans and their primate ancestors. Our bipedalism—our upright stance—preceded our large brain, making possible a larger diet and working well with our bodies as they evolved away from other primates. She discusses the idealized ratios of Leonardo’s Vitruvian man. Leonardo considered our foot as “a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art” (p. 6).  

2. Disability
Rinzler discusses historical senses of disability, notably clubfoot. She mentions various people with a clubfoot:  Joseph Goebbels, Sir Walter Scott, King Tut, Cludius I, Dudly Moore, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Mia Hamm; the last are two successful athletes. Rinzler reviews the history of surgical approaches, many of which were harmful. X-ray and sonography provided new insights, and genetics may have further promise, given that families and ethnic groups often have higher instances of clubfoot.  

3. Difference
This chapter describes the anatomy of the foot, bones, arches, tendons, and on as well as artistic representations and, of course, ballet and other forms of dance. A footprint is as individual as the much-used fingerprint. In Nazism and the American south, a flat foot was discriminated against as Jewish or Negro. Various treatments have been proposed for flat feet.  

4. Diet
Gout has been known since antiquity, but only in modern times has the underlying biochemistry and, now, genetic heritage been understood. The chapter mentions many famous names of people who suffered from gout. rheumatism, or corns. The closing pages discuss pharmaceutical approaches.  

5. Desire
The foot as sexual symbol: Rinzler discuss folklore (Cinderella’s slipper), pheromones, and Biblical topics: God’s feet, footwashing, and feet as symbols for sex and urination. Foot fetishism can be understood in terms of the lavish sensory innervation that links to our brain. Discussion mentions the bound feet of China, the folktale The Red Shoes, also Fifty Shades of Grey, Sex and the City, and Judy Garland’s red shoes in The Wizard of Oz

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Summary:

This is an important contribution that analyzes, critiques, and aims to correct structural inequalities (racism, sexism, capitalism) that influence contemporary medicine, with particular attention to the technical influences of computers, “big data,” and underlying values of neoliberalism, such as individualism, exceptionalism, capacity, and progress through innovation.  

Introduction: Theorizing Communicative Biocapitalism
Banner writes, “biocapitalism is comprised by the new economies and industries that generate value out of parts of human bodies” (p. 12). Parts include DNA, ova, and organs, but there’s also data from medical care, where patients are reduced to their physical bodies and/or to their “digital status” in medical records, research, even personal information volunteered on the Web, all which is indicated by the term “communicative.” As an example, Banner cites the large realm of patient on-line groups that are exploited by large companies as free labor, thus reducing the voice of the patients. Approaches of narrative medicine and medical humanities have not dealt with digital health, market forces, and the implied power relationships. Perhaps the new subfield of health humanities has promise to do so, if not also captive to “the logic of the market” (p. 17).   

Ch. 1. Structural Racism and Practices of Reading in the Medical Humanities
Banner writes, “Medical racism is a product of structural and institutional racism” (p. 25). She finds that current approaches from interpretive reading are insufficient because “the field’s whiteness has contoured its hermeneutics” (p. 25). Instead of the “reading-for-empathy” model, we should read for structures of racism, sexism, privilege, as well as economic and political inequality. She illustrates such reading with texts by Junot Dìaz, Audre Lourde, and Anatole Broyard.  

Ch. 2. The Voice of the Patient in Communicative Biocapitalism
 Patients have flocked to networking websites, voluntarily posting much personal information. Banner analyzes how technocapitalists mine these sites for data to use or sell. Patients’ information, given voluntarily, amounts to free labor and, even, work-arounds for companies that avoid expensive double-blind controlled studies. Rhetoric for these sites speak misleadingly of the “patient voice,” “stakeholder,” or “story sharing” and hide the exploitation involved. The chapter is specific for websites, drugs, and drug companies.  
Banner discusses (1) the “feminized labor” involved with sites for fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome (both “contested diagnoses”) and (2), more abstractly, the medicalization of the clinical gaze on patients who participate in websites and yearn for “an imagined state of purity,” and/or “an ableist vision of norms and reparative medicine” (p. 61). Overall, the digitalized-patient voice is colonized by forces of whiteness and should be decolonized. She discusses writing by Octavia Butler and Linda Hogan, both women of color.

Ch. 3. Capacity and the Productive Subject of Digital Health
This fascinating chapter describes and critiques “digital self-tracking,” or the use of devices such as Fit-Bits that help create and maintain the so-called “Quantified Self” (or “QS”). Banner finds this fad within the tradition of the Enlightenment (Ben Franklin) so that “exact science” may “optimize” individuals by being “responsibilitized” in a “self-sovereign” way. QS users understand that “Everything is data” (p. 83). She argues that this trend emphasizes “masculine objectivity” while “disavowing debility” (p. 85). Collected data may contribute to a “worried well” status or conditions of “precarity” or “misfitting.” She writes, “QS practice remains an inscription of the self as a self-surveillor, engaged in masculinized practices of neoliberal self-management” (p. 91). She discusses the technologies of the devices Scanadu, Melon, and Scarab. She provides and interprets photos of visual arts representations by Laurie Frick, who is a “self-tracker.”  

Ch. 4. Algorithms, the Attention Economy, and the Breast Cancer Narrative
Banner discusses Google Analytics, later Alphabet, which includes Calico and Verily, which have partnered with pharmaceutical companies. Such combinations of algorithms, capitalism, and media aim to capture the public’s attention, especially online. Messaging about breast cancer becomes reductive, emphasizing medical solutions, not prevention, and it avoids discussion of causes such as environmental pollution. Some critics decry “pinkification” of breast cancer. Public stories, such as Angelina Jolie’s, emphasize individual empowerment, a “hegemonic construction of illness”’ (p. 112), and these are amplified by mass media, both print and electronic. More diverse messages would value “heterophily over homophily” (p.121).   

Ch. 5.  Against the Empathy Hypothesis
Drawing on several commentators, Banner critiques the notion of empathy as a goal for caregivers as condescending to the patient and suspect when allied with productivity and efficiency for institutions. Further, the notion of “resilience” (in a “bleed” of neoliberal rhetoric into health humanities) has been misused in applied literature, parallel to notions of self-help and self-management. Some hermeneutics still support values of “state and capitalism” and ignore writers of color. Banner discusses the work of African-American poet Claudia Rankine, some of whose work is “postlyric,” and J. M. W. Turner’s painting “The Slave Ship” that illustrates “necropolitics.”  

Conclusion
Throughout the book Banner illustrates reading “for structure” in her interpretation of texts and visual images but also in medical institutions and practices and, still further, in the enormous and pervasive world of government forms and programs, big data, computers, and beyond. She finds structures of capitalism, sexism, and neoliberalism within existing “heteropatriarchal, ableist, and racist frameworks” (p. 154) despite claims of neutrality. She urges medicine and the humanities to develop new methods. She mentions specific collectives and communities that now challenge such norms (such as Gynepunk and CureTogether), and she calls for thinkers in many disciplines to confront demeaning technology and to “engender spaces in which care is more just, and more humane” (p. 156).      

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Every Note Played

Genova, Lisa

Last Updated: Apr-10-2018

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

This is a dramatic and moving story about a concert pianist who, at 45 years of age, suddenly and inexplicably, has ALS, and also equally about his ex-wife Karina, who takes on his care throughout his slow, inevitable, and lethal decline. As many readers know, ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). or “Lou Gherig’s disease,” hardens the motor nerves so that, progressively, there is no more control of muscles throughout the body. Not many readers know, however, the difficult path such patients and their families must pursue. This sensitive and detailed novel takes readers powerfully into the world of ALS, a disease for which there is today no cure.                                                                                      

Obsessed with his musical career and international travel, Richard has paid little attention to Karina and their daughter, Grace, and he has had affairs with other women. Karina has deceived him about her inability to bear more children. Because of their move from New York City to Boston, Karina, also a gifted pianist, has lost a possible career in jazz and now gives piano lessons to unpromising students. 

The first several chapters alternate between Richard and Karina. Although divorced from him, she brings him, now an ALS patient, back into the home they once shared. Various nurses, doctors, and other specialists try to explain the difficult future that includes certain loss of body functions, but Richard and Karina are slow to comprehend these. Despite their denial, they are forced to come to terms with Richard’s progressive decline and, finally, death.     
          
Richard loses the ability to use his hands, then his arms. He needs a special machine to breathe at night. Soon he has paid caregivers for parts of the day; these include a cheery and admirable man named Bill. No longer able to eat, Richard has a feeding tube. Later he needs a hospital bed. Also a Head Mouse to work his computer. Also an elaborate wheelchair. With unresolved issues in the past, Richard and Karina are emotionally apart—even with feelings of hate and rage—even while she cares for him.  

Karina’s walking partner Elise, a teacher, helps her stay sane. Karina travels to New Orleans with Elise and her class and finds her interest in jazz reawakened. No longer able to breathe even with assistance, should Richard go on to mechanical ventilation that will require 24-hour care at enormous expense? A choice is made. Richard dies, with various resolutions before and after his death.  

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The River of Consciousness

Sacks, Oliver

Last Updated: Mar-01-2018

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

Two weeks before his death in 2015, Sacks oversaw this collection of essays and charged Kate Edgar, Daniel Frank, and Bill Hayes to arrange its publication. The essays touch on various fields—evolution, botany, chemistry, medicine, neuroscience, and the arts, and focus on major figures such as Darwin, Freud, and William James. The major theme—as indicated by the volume’s title—is how minds (of humans, chimps, even jellyfish) interpret and remember what the senses perceive in normal and in limited states. While we read in the Foreword that “a number” of the pieces originally appeared in The New York Review of Books, there are no citations for dates and places.  

“Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers”: Sacks describes Darwin’s research with flowers that support evolution; flowing plants display qualities of sensitivity to “contact, pressure moisture, chemical gradients, etc” (p. 19). Sacks recalls the pleasures of investigating flowers as a youth in his London garden.  

“Speed” : Drawing on personal experience and a wide variety of anecdotes (including his encephalitic patients described in Awakenings), Sacks muses about mental perceptions, slow and fast, normal and drug-enhanced, dreams, and our ability to imagine “all speeds, all time” (p. 59).  

“Sentience: The Mental Lives of Plants and Worms”: Starting with Darwin and coming forward, Sacks discuss how worms, jellyfish, and even trees may be considered to exhibit “mind.” Near the end, we read, “if one allows that a dog may have consciousness of a significant and individual sort, one has to allow it for an octopus too” (p. 76).  
   
“The Other Road: Freud as Neurologist”: The opening paragraph ably sums up the essay. “Everyone knows Freud as the father of psychoanalysis, but relatively few know about the twenty years (from 1876 to 1896) when he was primarily a neurologist and anatomist; Freud himself rarely referred to them in later life. Yet his neurological life was the precursor to his psychoanalytic one, and perhaps an essential key to it (p. 79).   
   
The next three may be considered as a group because they deal with lapses or outright failures in perception, memory, or health. Because Sacks reports on his own life experience, these are the most personal.
“The Fallibility of Memory” describes Sacks’s memories of the bombing of London in the winter of 1940-41. It turns out that one memory, according to family members, is right, but the other is actually a version of a letter describing a bombing.

The essay continues to discuss such topics as false memories, auto-plagiarism, unconscious plagiarism, and fabulation. He concludes, “Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves—the stories we continually recategorize and refine” (p. 121). In a short piece, “Mishearings,” Sacks reports how his increasing deafness makes new (and sometimes hilarious) perceptions of spoken words.  

Surely the last written—and in many ways the most poignant—“A General Feeling of Disorder” discusses feelings of being ill. Sacks, at age 81, describes his metastatic liver cancer and, in detail, an arduous treatment. Although warned of weakness and pain, he writes of “a sort of negative orgasm of pain” and other disturbing side effects (pp. 155-59) in vivid detail.  

“The Creative Self” discusses forms of creativity including play, scholarship, unconscious borrowing, and subconscious insight. Sacks is less interested in a Freudian model than an evocation of “an entire hidden, creative self” (p. 144).            

The final two, “The River of Consciousness” and “Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science” deal with theories of how the mind works and, more collectively, how scientific breakthroughs occur. The former essay explores cinematic models for perception in James and Bergson and much later models of the 100 billion neurons of the brain working on networks, coalitions, or populations. He finds that a specific mechanism is unlikely to be found and, “Even the highest powers of art—whether in film or theater, or literary narrative—can only convey the faintest intimation of what human consciousness is really like” (p. 174).

In “Scotoma” (or “memory hole”), he looks at discoveries that were over-looked for many years . Later they were rediscovered as important for understanding various phenomena: Tourette’s syndrome, phantom limbs, and, his specialty, migraines.

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