In Illness as Narrative, Ann Jurecic thoughtfully examines the unruly questions that personal accounts of illness pose to literary studies: What is the role of criticism in responding to literature about suffering?  Does the shared vulnerability of living in a body, which stories of illness intimately expose, justify empathic readings?   What is the place of skepticism in responding to stories of suffering?  Does whether or how we read illness narratives matter?  Jurecic's questions entice discussion at an interesting cultural moment.  The numbers of memoirs and essays about illnessand their inclusion in medical school and other humanities coursesmultiplied from the later decades of the 20th century to the present.   However, their increase, and their potential to encourage empathic readings, coincided with dominant literary theories that advocated vigorously skeptical, error-seeking responses to texts and their authors.  Jurecic reminds us that Paul Ricoeur called such responses "the hermeneutics of suspicion" (3). 

Jurecic's astutely researched, nuanced answers to those questions propose a corrective to the extreme skepticism of "disembodied criticism." Such criticism, she claims, dismisses testimonial writing from "a position of distance and privilege."  But her answers also affirm that intellectually "rigorous" responses to texts are central to the critical humanities (15).  To further her position, she offers attentive readings of accounts of illness by Virginia Woolf, Reynolds Price, and Jean-Dominique Bauby, as well as the theoretical writing of literary and other scholars.  For instance, Jurecic speculates that the condition of a reader's body aligns with his or her responses to texts.  In a chapter called "Theory's Aging Body," she observes that as skeptical scholarly readers ageStephen Greenblatt, Michel Foucault, Judith Butlerthey have turned their attention to "illness, vulnerability, and mortality" (93).  Jurecic also suggests that a function of criticism is to uncover the cultural conditions that memoirs and essays about illness respond to.  Living "at risk" is a recent one.  In stories of living with the risk of experiencing a particular illness in the future, potential patients create narratives of uncertainty to discover the "personal meaning of the impersonal statistics" that medical research now regularly delivers (18). 

 Jurecic also reflects on the ways theorists have understood the possibilities of representing and responding to pain in the varied approaches of philosophers Elaine Scarry, Martha Nussbaum, and Richard Rorty and of anthropologists Jean E. Jackson, Byron Good, and Veena Das.  In an exceptionally comprehensive and nuanced reading of Susan Sontag's theoretical, fictional, and journal writing about suffering, Jurecic uncovers Sontag's inconsistent, yet revelatory positions on the human capacity for responding to representations of pain.  The chapter on Sontag is enriched by Jurecic's reading of Annie Lebovitz's and David Reiff's responses to Sontag's suffering: in Lebovitz's controversial photographs of Sontag's final days (included in A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005) and Reiff's memoir about his mother's illnesses (Swimming in a Sea of Death). 

Illness as Narrative closes with examples of what Jurecic calls reparative writing and reading practices.  In the first instance, ill writers such as Jean-Dominique Bauby (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) both recreate "a more coherent sense of themselves" and dislodge "fixed ideas and narratives" about illness (109).  In the second instance, Jurecic outlines the limits of two competing readings of Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.  One assumes that readers will by nature empathically imagine those who are culturally different from themselves.  The other looks skeptically at the assumption that what medical educators call cultural competence can be acquired by reading a book.  Jurecic suggests that strategies for reading and teaching informed by Janelle S. Taylor, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Rita Felski can encourage more complex habits of response, such as Taylor's "'empathic curiosity'" (quoted 122).


Illness as Narrative takes up questions so central to discussions in the medical humanities that it should be read by those who teach illness narratives in medical school and other curricula.  It carries forward the important cases made by Anne Hunsaker HawkinsArthur W. Frank, and Rita Charon that illness narratives are valuable to medicine, contemporary culture, and individual lives.  But it more rigorously addresses questions of how to respond to and teach the literature of suffering.

Ann Jurecic's book has consequential implications for literary studies and for the critical humanities more generally.  It represents an example of the way a marginalized sub-field can offer a perspective that the dominant theories in the larger discipline miss.  Perhaps the most salient and urgent question Jurecic asks is what theory loses if writers and readers attuned to the ill or suffering body are not part of the critical discussion.  The chapter "Theory's Aging Body" suggests important answers.  The chapter on Susan Sontag, "Sontag, Suffering, and the Work of Writing," complicates much of the published medical humanities readings of Sontag.  It also offers anyone interested in questions of representing suffering a fuller understanding of Sontag's essays on pain and illness in the context of her body of writing.    

While Jurecic, a literary and writing studies scholar interested in contemporary personal writing about illness, frames her discussion for literary and medical humanities scholars, her clear, jargon-free prose and the texts she writes about invite a much wider range of readers.  They include medical practitioners and educators, social scientists, philosophers, bioethicists, and those interested in humanities pedagogies, among others.   


University of Pittsburgh Press

Place Published

Pittsburgh, PA



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