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This outstanding anthology of poems, stories, excerpts and essays by African-American writers is prefaced by a poem ("Aunt Sue’s Stories" by Langston Hughes), a foreword, two essays and an introduction. The book is then divided into three sections: Section I, Illness and Health-Seeking Behavior; Section II, Aging; and Section III, Loss and Grief.
Each section begins with an introduction which clarifies the choice of the section’s theme and briefly describes each piece. At the conclusion of each section is a list of ten to fifteen questions which "are intended for personal reflection and group discussion." Brief autobiographical information for each of the thirty-one authors is presented in Appendix 1.
As Secundy notes in the introduction, a divide exists between the health care worker and patient, which is particularly prominent when color and economic status are different between them. Secundy, as an educator in the medical humanities, selected pieces that reveal "the significance of color and social distinctions" when African-Americans face illness or enter the health care system.
The selections chronicle struggle and survival, illness and loss, humiliation and pride, triumph and sorrow. These pieces speak to all of us, as Edmund Pellegrino states in his essay, "Ethnicity and Healing": "[p]aradoxically, as we learn more about the uniqueness of African-American culture, we are drawn closer to the common humanity we share with the subjects of these stories and poems."
The lives of writer Cathy Crimmins, her lawyer husband Alan Forman, and their seven-year-old daughter were changed forever on July 1, 1996, at a lake near Kingston, Ontario. "Alan’s brain got run over by a speedboat. That last sentence reads like a bad country-western song lyric, but it’s true. It was a silly, horrible, stupid accident." (p. 5). While Alan steered a small boat back to dock at the end of their vacation, a teenager drove a speedboat literally over him, causing major traumatic brain injury (TBI) including seizures, coma, hemorrhage and paralysis.
Crimmins chronicles her husband’s remarkable recovery with a mix of humor, medical information, anger at HMO denial of benefits, and gratitude for the care of physicians, nurses, therapists, EMT, friends and family during this grueling, and in many ways, never-ending ordeal. Although Alan survived -- and is now capable of walking, speaking, reading, loving, working and driving -- he is a different person. The injury to his frontal lobes causes him to be disinhibited, erratic, angry, irrational, petulant, obsessive, devoted yet cruel to his daughter, and prone to severe "cognitive fatigue."
TBI is a bizarre, unpredictable illness. Crimmins notes that the degree of Alan’s recovery is atypical for the force of his trauma. In addition, TBI survivors say and do wacky things: "Where is the mango princess?" was one of Alan’s first utterances after emerging from his coma. Alan’s pre-accident sharp-edged humor was replaced by bland affability and a disturbingly vacant gaze. Yet some of what he says and does is heart wrenching and poignant.
The book clearly documents that the trauma is not limited to the patient. As Crimmins so eloquently and honestly recounts, she, her daughter, and all who knew Alan were traumatized by the accident and its aftermath.
Crimmins is an aggressive caregiver, thrust kicking and fighting into the caregiver role. Her advocacy for her husband, including research into the best rehabilitation facility, day hospital, vocational rehabilitation program, doctors, therapists, etc., was unwavering and crucial to his optimal care and outcome.
Constructed as a triptych, the novel chronicles several generations of a Scottish family, the McLeod’s, across three Junes: Part I Collies, 1989; Part II Upright, 1995; and Part III, Boys 1999. In the first part, patriarch Paul McLeod assuages his grief and loneliness following his wife’s death by traveling to Greece on a tour. He tells the tour guide about his wife’s lung cancer: "A terrible ordinary death, you might say. Or an ordinary terrible death." (p. 23) Paul’s unrequited yearning for Fern, a young artist, heralds a succession of missed opportunities for expressions of love involving the McLeod’s.
The second part is a first person narrative by Fenno, Paul’s eldest son. Fenno, the gay owner of a Manhattan bookstore, cares for Malachy, a New York Times music critic, who has AIDS. Paul’s death brings the three sons together (Fenno and his younger twin brothers David, a veterinarian who lives in Scotland with his wife Lillian, and Dennis, a chef, who arrives from France with his wife and children).
The family relationships are complicated, and David’s infertility leads to revelations about strengths and weakness of various family members. Meanwhile, Mal’s illness and his decisions about controlling the end of his life, also give Fenno insight into loyalties and family secrets.
The last section, a coda, reverts to third person narration and reintroduces Fern, now widowed due to a freak accident and also pregnant. Themes of parenthood, responsibility and relationships continue to be developed.
The story opens two years into the writer's undiagnosed hematological disorder, focusing the narrative on the two most significant issues in this young woman's life--her first experience with a love relationship that is to result in a long-term commitment, and the disease that for years is to affect the way she lives her day-to-day life. Breslin describes in considerable detail her encounters with hospitals and health care professionals, none of whom are able to diagnosis nor prognosticate but continue to treat each new symptom as it arises.
In the midst of this uncertainty which pervades the memoir, are the subtexts of the love between the author and her husband and the relationship she maintains with her father. The reader, presumably like the author herself, never learns the name of the mysterious illness that informs the tale.
This is the story of a child/young adult who had the misfortune of multiple health problems from the age of three until his death at 19. But even more than Jesse's story, this is the narrative of and by Jesse's father as he recalls the emotional rollercoaster accompanying the abbreviated span of his oldest son's life. The author kept detailed journals of his and his son's experiences with the health care professions, while also collecting the boy's artwork which appears to be Jesse's personal record of his own internal struggle.
Although not chronologically linear, the narrative allows the reader into the soul of the parents' agony, from the time of Jesse's initial diagnosis of hydrocephalus, through management of inflammatory bowel disease, and into the final chronicle of unsuccessful liver transplantations.
Louis Drax is a nine-year-old boy living in France with his stay at home mother and Air France pilot father. Such an apparently normal family description is the merest tissue of appearances. The father is probably an alcoholic and unfaithful; the son is "accident-prone" (a nearly fatal episode of SIDS at two weeks of age, a near fatal electrocution at age 6 after falling on the tracks of the métro in Lyon; salmonella, tetanus, botulism, meningitis, etc. [or, as Louis is fond of saying, "blah, blah, blah."]) and the mother has issues that only emerge as one becomes more deeply involved in what is a mystery story.
Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Chronicle of a Death Foretold, or Janet Lewis’s superb The Trial of Søren Qvist, one knows the ending early on (page 16 in Louis Drax), but not the details. The why and the how are the stuff of the novelist’s art in all three books.
With premonition of more danger, Louis goes on a family picnic (see below for the author’s biographical basis for this tale) and winds up at the bottom of a ravine, dead. Drowned and dead. A few hours later, in the morgue, he is found to be alive. Comatose and in a persistent vegetative state but alive. He is therefore transferred to the care of a neurologist specializing in comatose patients at the Clinique de l’Horizon (formerly l’Hôpital des Incurables).
It is here that the mystery unfolds. The questions are: How did Louis end up at the bottom of the ravine? Did his father, now missing, push him as his distraught mother alleges? What role does the clearly neurotic mother play in this tragedy? And who exactly is Louis Drax? Lastly, how do the mysterious letters allegedly from him, written while still in a coma, come to be?
Poets on Prozac contains sixteen essays written by poets about their individual struggles with a variety of psychiatric disorders. The editor, physician and poet Richard Berlin, has gathered these essays in order to examine, and shatter, the long-standing notion that madness, particularly madness in poets, enhances creativity---we need only think of the myths surrounding writers such as Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas to understand how the relationship between madness and creativity might foster both fear and longing in novice writers.
In his informative and comprehensive introduction, Berlin poses these, and other, questions: "Do poets need to be mentally ill to produce great work? What is the influence of substance use/abuse? Does a person have to be 'crazy' to write good poetry? What do poets themselves define as crucial elements in their creative process?" (p. 2). He goes on to site current evidence that madness actually impedes creativity, as well as evidence that "some forms of mental illness may enhance, or at least coexist, with creativity" (pp. 4-5); he reviews the findings of researchers who have looked at "The Myth of Inspiration" and "The Myth of Very Special Talent" in creative persons (pp 6-7).
But it is in the wonderful essays themselves that we take a privileged peek into the lives, the often tortured lives, of successful poets (Berlin only considered the essays of poets who had published at least one book). Reading the essays is somewhat like eavesdropping on the therapy sessions of highly articulate and self-aware patients. Clearly Berlin has created a safe place for these writers to look again at their creative lives and how those lives intertwine with, and sometimes have been overgrown by, mental illness. All the essays, happily, come to a place of resolution; the writers find, in various degrees, that understanding or relieving their emotional distress results in the possibility of increased creativity. Along the way, they give us writing alive with metaphors, images and intelligent musings on art, poetry, life and suffering.
In the first essay, "Dark Gifts," Gwyneth Lewis writes about her depression: "I became Woman in a Dressing Gown. At my worst, the duvet on my bed looked like a body bag and I was the corpse inside it" (p. 13). Finally she concludes, "I've learned that depression is one of the most reliable guardians of my life as a poet. It's like a fuse in a house with suspect wiring" (p. 22). In his essay, Andrew Hudgins describes cortisone psychosis this way: "I was a fire station in which the alarm bells seldom stopped clanging and the firemen were exhausted and indifferent" (p. 163). In "The Desire to Think Clearly," J. D. Smith says, "Being a poet in despair does not necessarily make one a poet of despair" (p. 23). As most of the poets do, Denise Duhamel uses examples of poems within her essay to demonstrate how her illness, in this case bulimia, variously inhibited or influenced her writing. The rawness of illness shows up, again and again, in her ability to be brave and resolute in her poems: "I'm still working it out, as they say, as therapists say, as my friends say, / as I guess I'm saying now in this poem" (p. 37).
Many of the poets approach their illness histories with wry humor or pointed irony. Caterina Eppolito states that "Poetic form is an anorexic form of writing. So instead of restricting calories, I was restricting words" (p. 118). Ren Powell asks, "Maybe when it's all over I can ask my children if they think the days of dancing in the kitchen were worth the days I spent shut away in the bedroom" (p. 52). Powell, like most of the authors in this anthology, honors hard work at the craft as the measure of success, and says, "If I have any success at all as a writer it is as much despite my disorder as because of it" (p. 57). Other writers admit wondering, sometimes, if their writing success might be due to their disorders. Jesse Millner writes, "After all, wasn't it the melancholy that led me to write?" (p. 67). Most writers agree that abusing substances did not enhance but sidetracked their poetic energies, while prescribed medications often, as Jack Coulehan says, helped: "The obsessive traits softened, so I felt free to approach life in a more flexible manner. Despite this new experience of freedom, my productivity did not suffer; in fact, it increased" (p. 101).
The chemical basis for some mental disorders is acknowledged in many of the essays. In her discussion of postpartum depression, Martha Silano notes, "I'd simply woken up in a foreign country without a map, without a dictionary, with no way to understand this strange place" (p. 142). Silano, like others in this collection, found that once the chemical imbalance was corrected, something good happened to the writing---she moved from writing about her own personal experience to writing that reached beyond her fears: "Now I was writing poems with a more universal, all-encompassing vision" (p. 146). Liza Porter says it this way: "Voice comes from safety. Silence becomes words. The truth can be told" (p. 153). But the downside of medication is admitted as well. Chase Twitchell laments the loss of "metaphor-making," and compares it---in quite a fine metaphor---to someone turning "off the spigot" (p. 176). "It takes longer and requires far more doggedness than it did before medications" (p. 176). But medications also give many of these poets what Vanessa Haley names "the emotional insight and stamina to write" (p. 76). If these excellent essays are any indication, they are, and will continue to be, writing extraordinarily well.
Summary:This volume belongs in the category of cross-cultural studies of medicine and the humanities. Its main audience is scholars of nineteenth-century American psychiatry and culture. The author divides his study into six chapters, each with a topic, including the simultaneous emergence of nineteenth-century public debate about improving the treatment of insanity and the movement to abolish slavery; cultural activities in asylums directed toward humanizing the patients; bardolatry in British and American medical circles; discussions of Emerson, Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville in the context of their literary and personal relationship with madness; a chapter on captivity narratives and popular novels by former female and male patients; and an epilogue.
Summary:Subitled, Invisible Wounds of War. Psychological and Cognitive Injuries, Their Consequences, and Services to Assist Recovery, this monograph features 27 contributing researchers. Published by the RAND Corporation, it is funded by a grant from the Iraq Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund. The study was conducted under the joint auspices of the Center for Military Health Policy Research, a RAND Health Center, and the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the National Security Research Division of the RAND Corporation.
Baiev’s chronicle of medical life in wartime is full of incident—tragic, touching, and repeatedly traumatic: his own life was threatened repeatedly by Russians who suspected him and Chechens who resented him for treating Russians. Members of his extended family were killed and his father’s home was destroyed. He straddled other boundaries: trained in Russia, he fully appreciated how modern medicine may bring relief not available even in the hands of the most respected traditional healers, but he mentions traditional ways with the reverence of a good son of devout Muslims. His perspective is both thoughtfully nationalistic and international.
Finally coming to the States where he couldn’t at first practice the medicine he had honed to exceptional versatility under fire, he lives with a mix of gratitude for the privilege of safety and a longing for the people he served, whose suffering was his daily work for years that might for most of us have seemed nearly unlivable. Before writing the book, he struggled with his own post-traumatic stress, and continues to testify to the futility of force as a way of settling disputes. Medicine is his diplomacy as well as his gift to his own people, and the Hippocratic Oath a commitment that sustained him in the midst of ethical complexities unlike any one would be likely to face in peacetime practice.