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These arresting and beautiful drawings of a woman's body through which the interior skeleton is visible represent the art and body of Laura Ferguson, a visual artist who has severe scoliosis. At age 13 Ferguson underwent spinal fusion surgery, followed by one year spent wearing a plaster cast. Years later she began to experience pain and disability due to her condition. This was the impetus to try to understand her body, to visualize its skeleton, to undertake "an artistic inquiry" into the medical condition of scoliosis.
She learned anatomy and the physiology of motion, learned to read her own x-rays and was helped to visualize her skeleton by orthopedists and radiologists, working most recently with radiologists at New York University School of Medicine who provided a 3D spiral CT scan. In Ferguson's words, the latter is "an exciting new technology that allows me to view my skeleton from any angle, rotating and tilting it to match whatever movement or pose I'm interested in drawing." (Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Spring 2004, vol. 47, no. 2, p. 166)
Ferguson originated her own technique of "floating colors" to produce the layered background (on paper) of these drawings. On top of the complex colored background that constitutes the body's flesh in her work, she uses drawing materials to represent the interior skeleton, allowing the viewer to see both the body and its skeletal interior--but the interior has been exteriorized. Ferguson depicts a body in motion--bending, kneeling, reclining, stretching, twisting--as well as a sensual body--nude, with breasts and long hair; embracing, being embraced. Some of the depictions do not have a skeletal interior at all while some are almost straight anatomical drawings of skeleton parts.
The author, a scholar of autobiography and other forms of life writing, has expanded his scholarship to include what he calls "autopathography"--autobiographical narratives of illness and disability. This book is the result of an extensive study of such narratives. The works discussed are full-length and recently published--most were published in the 1980s and 1990s. Couser is particularly interested in issues of narrative authority, in how autopathography can be counterdiscursive to the prevailing biomedical narrative, and, especially, in how autopathography is counterdiscursive to the cultural stigmatization and marginalization that often accompany illness or disability ["insofar as autobiography is the literary expression of the self-determined life" (182)].
Since social/cultural counterdiscourse is of particular importance to Couser, he has focused on four specific illnesses/disabilities that have been associated with stigma: breast cancer, AIDS, paralysis, and deafness (182). His analysis of each condition is diachronic because he is searching for "the enrichment of the genre by successive writers who defy, complicate, or refine its conventions" (44). In addition, Couser asks, to what extent do authors "integrate illness narrative into a larger life narrative?" (14). He considers who narrates illness stories (biographer or autobiographer), how the stories are constructed, whether and how they achieve a "comic plot" and narrative closure.
The book's introduction (chapter 1, "Human Conditions--Illness, Disability, and Life Writing") provides a framework, relating what will follow to current issues in life writing, "identity politics," the culture of medicine, and illness experience, as well as to other work on illness narratives such as Anne Hunsaker Hawkins's Reconstructing Illness: Studies in Pathography and Arthur Frank's The Wounded Storyteller (annotated in this database).
Chapter 2, "Medical Discourse and Subjectivity," develops further the questions of narrative authority, representation, and resistance to a dominant medical or cultural narrative. Each subsequent section--breast cancer, AIDS, paralysis, deafness--is prefaced by an informative discussion of the cultural and narrative issues that are relevant to the particular condition; the subsequent analyses of individual texts further elaborate these themes.
Summary:In 1977 Marion Cohen's physicist husband, Jeffrey, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He was 36 years old. Cohen, a mathematician and poet and mother of four, became his chief caregiver. As her husband's illness progressed, the caregiving role became increasingly absorbing, demanding, all-encompassing. Eventually daytime attendants were hired but sometimes they didn't show up. This collection of 77 poems is a kind of journal, primarily from late 1989 through January, 1991, that chronicles Marion's ambivalent caregiving, despair, resignation, "temper tantrums," love, and compassion.
Summary:In the sing-song voice of a Latin-American child, with the repetition and rhythm of a nursery rhyme, the poem tells of "my brother/who spins his eyes" and the child-narrator's awareness of the shame the parents feel about having a mentally retarded son. The poem superbly captures traits of mental retardation, and the sibling child's awareness of its impact on the family.
Summary:Endpoint is an extraordinary sequence of seventeen poems John Updike wrote near the end of his life. Beginning on his birthday in March, 2002, he wrote a poem every birthday for the next 6 years. Then after his 2008 birthday he wrote several more poems, mostly focusing on his dying from lung cancer. The last poem, "Fine Point," was dated 12/22/08. He died in January, 2009. The poems also include memories of his mother writing and cranking out manuscripts, but never getting published; of childhood friends who became models for characters in his novels; of getting lost in a department store as a three-year-old; of Jack Benny and FDR, Mickey Mouse and Barney Google, as well as five wars. The memories are both personal and international in scope. His attitude toward them varies from distress to appreciation and gratitude.
The speaker was treated for cancer but afterwards "the kidneys / refused to continue. / they closed their thousand eyes." Now she is in the dialysis unit, a patient once again, with other patients. She thinks her body rebelled against the cancer surgery by refusing to lose "even the poisons" that the kidney eliminates.
She thought that when the cancer was treated she would be well, but instead, there was more illness--a chronic disease. She knows that she is expected to take the situation in stride ("we are not / supposed to hate the universe") but she is "furious"--all her gratitude for being saved from cancer has been nullified.
The speaker appears to be in need of an organ transplant (see dialysis, annotated in this database). Her son is the likely donor but there is an incredible irony in this: 30 years earlier she had tried to abort him, brutally ("the hangers I shoved inside"), before abortion was legal. Now, as she is told that her body might reject his, she remembers how she had previously rejected his body, and how he had refused to be rejected ("refusing my refusal").
The narrator is an alcoholic who has signed himself into a "drying-out facility." He has been there before and tries to reassure his companion, J.P., that their unpleasant withdrawal symptoms will improve. J.P. likes to talk and the narrator encourages him to do so because he would rather listen to J.P.'s stories than think about his own predicament. After hearing about J.P.'s marriage--infatuation, love, children, drinking, fighting ("who knows why we do what we do?")--the narrator is able to tell his own story.
His story includes a wife with whom he was once happy but from whom he is now estranged, and a girlfriend who has received a cancer diagnosis. Each woman had brought him to the drying-out facility, at each separate occasion. "Part of me wanted help. But there was another part." The narrator's ambivalence extends to his relationship with these two women. He can't face his girlfriend's illness or her son, and he knows that if he calls his wife she will ask him "where I'm calling from" and he will have to explain.
This anthology culls 1,500 excerpts from approximately 600 works of literature primarily written in the past two centuries and representing all major genres--the novel, drama, poetry, and essay. These brief selections highlight how literature portrays the medical profession and also provide ample evidence of many recurrent themes about the doctor-patient relationship and the personal lives of physicians present in the pages of fiction.
The book is organized into eleven chapters devoted to the following subjects: the doctor's fee, time, bedside manner, the medical history and physical examination, communication and truth, treatment, detachment, resentment of the medical profession, hospital rounds, social status, and the doctor in court. Many well-known authors including Anton P. Chekhov, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann, W. (William) Somerset Maugham, Leo Tolstoy, Tennessee Williams, and William Carlos Williams are featured in this anthology but less notable writers are also introduced. A twenty-three-page bibliography of primary and secondary sources is a useful element of the book.
A little girl is brought to the rural hospital by her mother, who throws himself at the feet of the young doctor, “Please do something to save my daughter!” It seems that she has been suffering from a sore throat and is now having difficulty breathing. The doctor looks into her throat; diphtheria is evident.
At first he scolds the mother for not having brought the girl earlier. Then he suggests surgery: a tracheotomy. The doctor knows this is the only way he might save the child, but he is consumed by anxiety because he has never performed the procedure. At first the mother objects to surgery, but then relents. The tracheotomy is successful and the child survives.