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In September 1796, 32-year-old Mary Lamb (1764-1847), stabbed her mother to death with a carving knife during an incoherent frenzy. Almost immediately, she became calm and was sent to a madhouse, remaining away from home for months until her grieving and unforgiving father had died. Mary was released into the care of her much younger brother, Charles (1775-1834), soon to be known for his poetry and essays. She never went to prison, but would return to the madhouse many times over the next fifty years. As a result, this life is an interesting exploration of chronic mental disturbance in the early nineteenth century.
Neither Charles nor Mary ever married; they always lived together and professed to be each other's dearest friend. Obliged to eke out a middle class income--she (until her crime) at dressmaking, he in an office--they turned to writing, often together. The Lambs' famous Tales from Shakespear [sic] was written mostly by Mary, but their friend William Godwin under Charles's name as sole author first published it. Mary's other books, edifying texts for young female readers, were published anonymously.
Letters to their many friends reveal Mary's vexation with Charles's drinking and smoking and his concerns over her multiple relapses, which were triggered by being obliged to move house. Charles predeceased his older sister by ten years and she spent the rest of her life in chronic care of a private couple, visiting his grave almost every day.
Fiona has Alzheimer's disease and Grant must finally place her in an institution. He is dutiful in his caregiver role and respectful of her past beauty and affection. To his horror however, he watches Fiona establish a romantic bond with another demented patient, Aubrey, whose appearance, behavior, and education are nothing like Grant's. At first, Grant resents the threat, then he gradually accepts Fiona's need.
The situation is aggravated when Aubrey's wife, Marian, brings him home. She really does not want him there, but cannot otherwise keep her house. Fiona is miserable and begins to lose weight. Grant awkwardly tries to encourage Marian to send Aubrey back, or at least to allow regular visits. She is unwilling, but eventually she relents. However, Fiona improves anyway, her disease having rapidly eradicated the memory of Aubrey, while Grant and Marian are exchanging telephone messages about the possibility of a date.
A series of approximately 175 short fictional monologues or "postcards," each less than a page, in the voice of an alcoholic--the view from "the bottle"--describing the obsession, rationalization, pain, dissolution, and toll that alcoholism takes on career, body, friends and family. Each "postcard" is written in a different voice: sometimes old, sometimes young; male or female; reformed or not. In few words, they capture intense moments that vividly evoke the misery and folly in the rest of alcoholic existence. There is humour and despair.
On 15 March 1977, the acclaimed Quebec writer, Hubert Aquin (HA) born 1929, blew out his brains on the grounds of Montreal's Villa Maria, a convent girls' school, where his first wife had been educated and only steps from the Westmount home that he shared with his psychiatrist partner, Andrée Yanacopoulu (herself now a writer of medical history) and their nine-year old son, Emmanuel. Yanacopoulo had known of the suicide plan well in advance and, as part of a pact, had agreed not to stop it.
Through a series of interviews with family, ex-family, friends, lovers, colleagues, secretaries, students, and cleaning ladies, mostly between 1977 and 1983, Sheppard conducts an "investigation" to determine why Aquin ended his life at that time and in that way; and why his partner allowed it. Only a single interview seems to have been conducted after 1985. Each chapter is preceded by an extensive citation from one of Aquin's four novels, followed by stage direction notes for music, sound effects, and mood, and comprised of situated testimony written as dialogue for a film script.
Just as many explanations for Aquin's suicide emerge from this inquiry as there are witnesses. The causes range from the political, through the physical, psychological, social, symbolic, and emotional, to the spiritual. For each witness, they are the truth. They include 1. the failure of the recently elected separatist government to declare Quebec to be a sovereign nation; 2. Aquin's much publicized dismissal from a newspaper job, which he had counted on for a prominent editorial opportunity; 3. the failure of one (or several) love affair(s); 4. the collapse of two marriages; 5. estrangement from the two sons of his first marriage; 6. chronic ill health due to alcoholic epilepsy; 7. unresolved conflicts with his parents; 8. the result of his own writing which displayed a longstanding fascination with sex, death, violence, and suicide; 9. the result of writer's block; 10. a "classic" capitulation of a "québécois" male to the tyranny of women, either a "québécoise" mother or--(take your choice)-- a non-québécoise lover; 11. a covenant with 9 year-old boys crossing several generations; 12. the destiny of a man with a death wish, a chronic predisposition to self killing, who, according to one engaging friend (Jacques Languirand), had probably already committed suicide in a previous life as a late Antique Roman, and would likely do again--perhaps already has.
Sheppard dedicates his book to more than one hundred suicides from Sappho to Kurt Cobain. He shapes the responses of his subjects by his pointed questions and the juxtaposition of their answers to advance his overriding theory that Aquin's suicide was his finest work of art. All the varying explanations co-exist peacefully within Aquin's immortality, which resides in the minds of those who remember and grieve for him. No single interpretation is more plausible than another. Sheppard explicitly links these multiple "truths" to the early film work of Kurosawa; we are also reminded of Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Dream of Scipio (see this database).
Shay, a psychiatrist who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), juxtaposes the narrated memories of his patients who are Vietnam veterans to the story of Achilles in Homer's Iliad. He finds that the roots of their illness, like that of the ancient hero, lie in betrayal of duty by senior officers who failed to do "what's right," in the repression of grief, and in the social limitations imposed on expressions of love between men.
These stressors lead to guilt, wrongful substitution, and dangerous rage, called the "berserk" state. The mental pathology is fostered by an equally wrongful failure to honor the enemy; return to "normal" is never possible. The book concludes medically with recommendations for prevention.
Returned from combat, Tayo, a mixed-blood Laguna, struggles to regain his health and mental equilibrium. Suffering from what his physicians term "battle fatigue" and the lingering effects of malaria, Tayo had become dysfunctional when he was ordered to shoot several of the enemy and sees in them the faces of his own ancestors.
Later, at the VA hospital, Tayo is told by white doctors to avoid "Indian medicine" and to remove himself as far as possible from his community and heritage. He is heavily sedated and experiences himself as "white smoke."
After he leaves the hospital and returns to his aunt and her family, Tayo's illness worsens (including chronic nausea and vomiting, hallucinations, and weeping). Finally his grandmother calls in a traditional healer who starts Tayo on an intense journey of inner healing (and encounters with other Native American healers) and reconnection with his painful but rich past.
Dr. Hojat's comprehensive survey of empathy in medicine is subtitled "Antecedents, Developments, Measurement, and Outcomes." He begins by carefully distinguishing empathy from related concepts or qualities, like sympathy and compassion; and by clarifying the cognitive, as opposed to affective, nature of empathy. Essentially, empathy creates our sense of connectedness with other human beings and, to a limited extent, with some animals. After sketching its evolutionaly and neurological substrates, Hojat then summarizes research in measuring empathy, with particular emphasis on empathy in the clinical setting.
The Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy (JSPE), developed by Hojat, is among the most useful and well-validated self-report survey instruments. This scale is also available in a form to be completed by patients, the Jefferson Scale of Patient's Perception of Physician Empathy (JSPPPE). Hojat presents the results of numerous studies using the JSPE and other instruments to asses medical student and physician empathy. For example, some evidence suggests that female physicians are more empathic than male physicians, that students with higher empathy scores are more likely to engage in prosocial behavior, and that primary care attracts medical students who score higher in empathy. There is also a considerable body of evidence showing that empathic engagement with patients by physicians leads to better health outcomes.
The chapter on enhancement of empathy is especially important for medical education. Hojat reviews various methods for enhancing clinical empathy, including, for example, communication skills training, systematic "shadowing," teaching narrative skills, and study of literature and the arts. He concludes "research shows that empathy can be enhanced effectively by dedicated educational programs," although such programs face many obstacles in the current context of medical education.
Doctors in Fiction. Lessons from Literature is an interesting collection of short essays about fictional physicians by Borys Surawicz and Beverly Jacobson. The authors, one a cardiologist (Surawicz) and the other a freelance writer, discuss more than 30 physicians drawn from novels, short stories, and drama, and representing a fictional time frame from the late 12th to the early 21st century. In each chapter the authors present one or more of these physicians in context, briefly introducing the work, the writer, and a précis of social context.
Dr. Andrew Manson in A. J. Cronin's The Citadel and Dr. Martin Arrowsmith in Sinclair Lewis's Arrowsmith appear in the section entitled "Idealistic Doctors." Other examples of "good" physicians include Tertius Lydgate (Middlemarch), Bernard Rieux (The Plague), and Thomas Stockman (An Enemy of the People). At the other end of the spectrum are failures and burnt-out cases, like alcoholic psychiatrist Dick Diver in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night and the debauched abortionist Dr. Harry Wilbourne in Faulkner's The Wild Palms.
Some of the best examples of fallen doctors appear in Anton Chekhov's stories and plays. Chekhov, a practicing physician himself, well understood the triumphs and tragedies of the medical experience. Surawicz and Jacobson single out Dr. Andrei Ragin, the dispirited medical director of Chekhov's Ward 6 for special attention. They also touch briefly on Dymov, an idealistic physician who dies as a result of diphtheria he contracted from a patient (The Grasshopper); Korolyov, a young doctor who develops an empathic bond with a woman who suffers from chronic anxiety ("A Doctor's Visit"); Startsev, a practitioner who grows to love money more than his patients' welfare("Ionych"); and Astrov, the dedicated proto-environmentalist physician in Uncle Vanya.
Two of the most striking figures in Doctors in Fiction arise from contemporary popular novels, although their fictional lives take place in an earlier time. The first is Dr. Adelia Aguilar, the protagonist of several mystery novels by Ariana Franklin. Aguilar is a graduate of the University of Salerno and serves as a forensic consultant to King Henry II of England in the 1170s. The other is Dr. Stephen Maturin, well known to millions of readers as the particular friend of Captain Jack Aubrey in Patrick O'Brian's series of novels about the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Maturin is not only a famous physician and naturalist, but also a British undercover intelligence agent.
This anthology of 38 autobiographical works by women with HIV/AIDS is edited by two women who are HIV positive. The introduction summarizes how the editors solicited writing or other expressions from HIV-positive women in order to publicly recognize the stories of women living with HIV/AIDS. Although most of the works are from Canada and the USA (including some from native populations), 12 other countries are also represented, including many African and European countries. Most of the pieces are prose, but poetry, art and photography are also included.
The pieces are very diverse and reflect multiple perspectives: activist, feminist, mother, teenager, drug addict, prostitute, lesbian, heterosexual, victim of abuse, etc. The stories are personal, introspective, direct and specific. Yet, throughout the anthology, universal themes of loneliness, isolation, hope, love and love lost recur.
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.