Lisa Diedrich

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Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise


Author Diedrich investigates ("treats") mid-late 20th century memoirs about illness (illness narratives) from an interdisciplinary perspective drawing on the disciplines of literature, social sciences, and philosophy. Her analysis uses the theoretical frameworks of poststructuralism, phenomenology, and psychoanalysis to consider "what sort of subject is formed in the practice of writing . . . illness narratives," the kind of knowledges articulated by such writing, whether and how such writing can transform "expert medical knowledges," how language operates in these memoirs, and "what sort of ethics emerges out of such scenes of loss and the attempts to capture them in writing" (viii).

The book is divided into Introduction, five chapters on specific memoirs, and Conclusion. Chapter 1, "Patients and Biopower: Disciplined Bodies, Regularized Populations, and Subjugated Knowledges," draws on Foucault's theory of power to discuss two mid-20th-century memoirs of institutionalization for tuberculosis. Betty McDonald's the Plague and I is compared with Madonna Swan: A Lakota Woman's Story. Dividing practices and regularization are shown to serve different functions in these two incarcerations, figurative in the case of Betty McDonald, and literal in the case of Madonna Swan.

Chapter 2, "Politicizing Patienthood: Ideas, Experience and Affect," draws on Foucault's approach to the subject and on his discussion of "practices of the self" in contrasting Audre Lorde's The Cancer Journals with Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors (see annotations). Diedrich also brings into her analysis Eve Sedgwick's theory of queer performativity and Sedgwick's own illness narrative, White Glasses. Diedrich views all of these as counter narratives to the clinical medical narrative of illness but she shows how they differ in stance.

Chapter 3, "Stories For and against the Self: Breast Cancer Narratives from the United States and Britain" looks at "the arts of being ill" as they are represented in two cultures, two "conceptions of the self in these countries at a particular historical moment" (61). The narratives discussed are Sandra Butler and Barbara Rosenblum's narrative, Cancer in Two Voices and Ruth Picardie's Before I Say Goodbye (see annotations). Diedrich associates Cancer in Two Voices with an American notion of self-improvement and Before I Say Goodbye with a British "emphasis on the cultivation of an ironic self" (55). The author works in this chapter with Freud's idea of the uncanny, Benedict Anderson's concept of "imagined political communities" and Elaine Scarry's discussion of pain, language, and the unmaking of the self.

Chapter 4, "Becoming-Patient: Negotiating Healing, Desire, and Belonging in Doctors' Narratives," treats Oliver Sacks's illness narrative, A Leg to Stand On, Abraham Verghese's autobiographical My Own Country: A Doctor's Story of a Town and Its People in the Age of AIDS, and Rafael Campo's book of essays, The Poetry of Healing (see annotations). Here Diedrich considers "the possibility that doctors, especially AIDS doctors, might become patients through desiring-and writing-productions" (83) and she utilizes the rhizome model of Deleuze and Guattari to make her case. She discusses how Verghese and Campo are each both cultural insiders and outsiders and how they each "bring the body into language through their writing" (88).

Chapter 5, "Between Two Deaths: Practices of Witnessing," focuses primarily on Paul Monette's writing about the loss of his partner to AIDS, and on John Oliver Bayley's books about the loss of his wife, Iris Murdoch, to Alzheimer's, and her ultimate death (see annotations in this database). In this chapter Diedrich invokes Lacan's concept of the real and his formulation of "the ethical possibility of being between two deaths" (117). She draws also on trauma theory and the work of Kelly Oliver, a contemporary feminist philosopher who has written on witnessing.

Finally, in her "Conclusion: Toward an Ethics of Failure," Diedrich returns to Elaine Scarry's "phenomenological discussion of the experience of pain" and brings in Jean-François Lyotard's concept of incommensurability and his suggestion between the two poles of what is seemingly incommensurable one might search, in Diedrich's words, for "new rules for forming and linking phrases between . . . subject positions" (150). In that context she analyzes physician Atul Gawande's discussion of medical uncertainty and error in his book, Complications (see annotation) and philosopher Gillian Rose's book, Love' s Work. Diedrich concludes that the basic incommensurability between doctor and patient can be a starting point for a new ethics, an ethics of failure and risk "because by taking such risks [of failure, of relations], we open up the possibility of new routes, new treatments: in and between art, medicine, philosophy, and politics" (166).

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