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In a fascinating and wide-ranging series of chapters organized by categories of disease or disability that have afflicted known artists, writers, and musicians, Sandblom examines the multifaceted relationship between creative work and illness. He begins his discussions of particular artists usually with basic information about the nature of the affliction and its manifestations; where available, introduces the artist’s own comments upon his or her condition; and then analyzes how particular works represent or implicitly allude to the illness. In some cases the disease is a context; in others a theme; in others a vehicle or tenor of metaphor.
The book is richly illustrated with reproductions of paintings, parts of musical scores, and poems or prose excerpts. Artists and writers under discussion include Bacon, Beethoven, Jorge Luis Borges, the Brontes, George Gordon Byron, Cezanne, Anton P.Chekhov, Chopin, Emily Dickinson, F. (Francis) Scott Fitzgerald, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Franz Kafka, John Keats, Mahler, Thomas Mann, Herman Melville, John Milton, Flannery O’Connor, Proust, Rainer Maria Rilke, William Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson, Titian, John Updike, William Wordsworth, and Yeats, to name a few.
An adolescent boy enters a hospital for crippled children. His initiation into institutional life is painful. At first he wants nothing more than isolation and protection from patients he regards as "freaks." But as alliances form and the subtleties of ward life become clearer, he learns new methods of self-identification that have more to do with the peculiar structures of this confined world than with the world outside. Home becomes an increasingly remote reference point and the camaraderie of suffering in exile the dominant source of affirmation.
The story is a coming of age tale intensified by burdens beyond what adolescence is normally required to bear. A boy becomes not only a man, but in some sense an old man before his time, and returns to youth "outside" both scarred and gifted with what suffering has taught him, and with a new sense of who are his "brothers and sisters."
Antonia Redmond is a young Harvard-trained doctor who has returned to the East African village where she was raised by American parents to establish a medical practice. Her efforts are frustrated by inadequate supplies and funding, an under-trained staff, and patients whose superstitions and mistrust make diagnosis and treatment difficult. She deals daily with a conflict of cultures, trying to maintain her medical methods and standards in an environment where she competes with the authority of native healers.
Esther, daughter of a native healer who has some familiarity with and respect for Western medicine, envies and longs for Antonia’s Western training and attaches herself to her as a disciple. In her encounters with patients, Esther finds that she has an inexplicable gift for healing which baffles her as well as Antonia and complicates their already tenuous relationship. Esther’s gift forces Antonia to reexamine some of her most basic assumptions about what constitutes healing.
Based on historical records, family archives, and established New Jersey folklore, this story about Deborah Leeds, 18th century midwife and healer, reconstructs the events that led to her being identified as the bearer of the "Jersey devil." An English immigrant brought to Burlington County to marry, "Mother Leeds" worked as herbalist and caregiver in a largely Quaker--and therefore unusually tolerant--community while bearing her own thirteen children. Her extraordinary skill seemed to bespeak not only careful study but powers that some associated with witchcraft.
After 30 years of faithful service, during which time she shared her work with two other women and with her daughter, her position was challenged by a newly arrived Edinburgh-educated physician who undertook to discredit her work and breed distrust among her neighbors by implications of witchcraft. His efforts came to a head when, at the birth of her thirteenth child--who died shortly after birth--he claimed to have seen the child turned to a flying demon, grow scales, and escape into the night. The story is told with great sympathy for the woman's predicament and a lively imagination for the situation of powerful women healers whose mysterious gifts both blessed and threatened their communities.
This searing play takes place in California's central valley where Mexican immigrants are employed at survival wages to work in fields poisoned by pesticides. Their ramshackle government homes are built over dumps where toxic waste poisons the water. The community has suffered a high incidence of cancer--especially in children--, birth defects, and other illnesses related to long-term intake of toxic substances.
One of the main characters, Cerezita, has only half a body, and often occupies center stage encased in an altar-like contraption where only her head shows. She turns pages, points, and performs other basic functions with tongue and teeth. She is a prophetic figure, willing to see and speak, because seeing and speaking are all she can do, and to name the evils that others prefer to call the will of God.
She seeks and finds intellectual companionship in the local priest who is struggling to find an appropriate way to minister to a parish divided among disillusioned cynics turned alcoholic, pious women who want nothing to do with politics, and the angry young, including one young homosexual who feels driven to leave a loving but uncomprehending family, and reveals to the priest that he has AIDS.
The community has been involved in recent protests that consist of hanging the bodies of recently deceased children on crosses in the fields. This dramatic protest has caused public outrage and attracted media attention. The play culminates in a protest in which Cerezita and the priest are shot down and the young man with AIDS cries out for the community to burn the fields. The curtain falls on burning vineyards.
Jack, who is fifteen, is just getting used to his parents' divorce when his father takes him out on a boat ride one afternoon and stops in the middle of the lake to explain that the new love in his life is a male, and that he is, and has very likely always been, gay. The shock sends Jack through several levels of reaction, from revulsion to hostility to fear of social ostracism, to grief at the alienation he assumes is now inevitable between him and a father he has loved.
In fact, people at school do find out and he finds the word "faggot" painted on his locker. Discovering that a girl in his class has a gay father in the same social circle as his own puts a slightly new light on his predicament, and gradually Jack comes to a place of peace in learning that he can love his dad without either judging or condoning his homosexuality, and can look forward to an adult life of his own in which there will be complex choices of his own to make, as there have been for his parents.
Something is wrong with Billie Weinstein's older sister, Cassie, now in her first year at Cornell. She has given away all her clothes except an old sweatsuit and blue jeans. She studies obsessively, convinced she's failing despite a stellar academic record. She rescues food and paper products from the garbage, unable to bear seeing anything wasted. And she's losing weight dramatically.
Even though their father is a doctor, it takes the family several months to recognize and acknowledge all the classic symptoms of anorexia and get Cassie to a psychiatric hospital. In the meantime Billie, still in high school, divides her energies between worrying about her sister, coping with an overbearing father, and finding her way in a relationship confused by sexual pressures and ethnic differences.
Her best friend's large, close, messy, jovial Italian family offers her a refuge from her own much less expressive one, but she discovers they have their own stresses, mostly financial, which drive them suddenly out of town in a moment of crisis. So it's a year of loss, transition, and rapid maturing for Billie, who finds, when her sister comes home with an uncertain prognosis, that she can no longer be the "baby," but has assumed a new, more responsible place in the family system and a new authority over her own life, defined in terms that have less to do with her sister, and more with her own desires and purposes.
In this lyrical tale, Ultima, an old curandera or healer, comes to live with the family of a young New Mexican boy who learns from her about the healing powers of the natural environment and the human spirit. Antonio's family respects her wisdom and legendary power, though some in the community believe she is a witch. Antonio finds himself drawn to her and under her tutelage develops an awareness of the primal energies of earth and sky that affect human lives and fate.
He goes with her to gather herbs and to visit the sick and comes to understand a connection between healing powers and knowledge of nature. Though he never receives a rational explanation of how Ultima foresees events, cures illnesses, blesses or curses, or why and when she chooses not to intervene, he learns that the knowledge healing requires is threefold: knowledge of the patient, the healing substance, and one's own limitations. He learns that healing requires making oneself vulnerable to sickness and to the spiritual as well as physical needs of the sick.
Leland Fowler, a small-town Vermont attorney, is raising his small daughter alone two years after his wife's death in a car accident when he meets Carissa Lake, a homeopath, and falls in love. He originally seeks her services because of low-grade cold symptoms that won't go away. She attempts to keep their relationship purely professional, but finally advises him to see another homeopath so they can pursue a more intimate relationship.
She starts him on a regimen of highly dilute arsenic solution that helps him immediately. In the meantime another patient of Carissa's, a young family man suffering from severe athsma and allergies, has gone into a coma as a result of eating cashews to which he is violently allergic. The man's wife brings legal action against Carissa since it was under her care that Richard, the patient, started taking a homeopathic solution derived from cashews and apparently was motivated to try the cashews themselves by dint of misunderstanding the "law of similars"--that "like cures like"--that is a central homeopathic principle.
Leland's law firm prosecutes after Richard dies, and Leland is forced to keep his relationship to Carissa secret while he himself struggles with his own doubts about homeopathy. To protect Carissa, because he believes her innocent, he helps her doctor her casenotes. Eventually the case is dropped; Carissa leaves town; and Leland is left to ponder the forces that drive medical, legal, and personal decisions.
This unusual collection of contemporary art features full color prints of what might be termed comic doctor archetypes. Entitled by specialty, paintings feature doctors in a variety of incongruous settings that constitute fantastic anachronistic commentary on the situation of the doctor relative to different social groups or social expectations.
"The Internist," for instance, is represented as a modern female doctor in a medieval setting, commenting ironically on the various institutional pressures that come to bear upon women in the medical profession and expectations of the internist in particular. "The Pathologist" is featured getting his comeuppance as the doctor who usually has "the last word" in a confrontation with the figure of death--a skeleton straddling a Jungian snake among a horde of rats on the office floor. Each of the paintings is accompanied on the opposite page by a brief, but informative and insightful commentary by Spence.