Showing 1 - 10 of 24 annotations contributed by Schilling, Carol

Crying in H Mart: A Memoir

Zauner, Michelle

Last Updated: Jun-23-2022
Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

While Michelle Zauner’s remarkable memoir is an expression of her profound grief after her mother died, her story simultaneously reflects on her complicated relationship with the woman she called Umma and with her own Korean-American identity. The H Mart of the title, an Asian grocery chain, provided the ingredients for the dishes that suffused their relationship, her identity, and her grief. Food and memory animate the memoir itself.  

Zauner was 25 when her mother was diagnosed with an aggressive late-stage, mid-life cancer. Also the only daughter of a white American father, Zauner was a rebellious child, resentful of Umma’s version of tough love. Growing up the lone Asian student in her Oregon community, she felt both othered at school and an outsider among her Seoul relatives. Just as she was beginning to appreciate her Korean heritage and understand her mother’s love, she learned about Umma’s diagnosis.  

The first half of the memoir exuberantly brings to life scenes from Zauner’s childhood and her brief post-college years in New York City, interrupted by her dedicated caregiving. Attempting to save her mother, Zauner at times overwhelmed her with her native foods. “I would radiate joy and positivity,” Zauner pledged. “I would learn to cook for her—all the things she loved to eat, and I would single-handedly keep her from withering away” (69). Her optimistic culinary efforts produce a poetry of exacting descriptions of the flavors and textures and preparation of those foods. It’s grimly ironic that the chemotherapy her mother endured wiped out her ability to taste or digest Zauner’s loving offerings of health.  

The second half turns from living with Umma to living without her. Wishing to sustain her bond with her mother as Zauner grieved, she continued to prepare her Korean family’s recipes. Walking down H Mart’s redolent isles generated “waves” of sorrow that mark the enduring ebb and flow of her grief. Unsuccessful with conventional therapy, she found cooking a preferable form of self-care. “Every dish I cooked exhumed a memory. Every scent and taste brought me back for a moment to an unravaged home. Knife-cut noodles in chicken broth took me back to lunch at Myeongdong Gyoja . . . The kalguksu so dense from the rich beef stock and starchy noodles it was nearly gelatinous. My mother ordering more and more refills of their famously garlic-heavy kimchi” (212-213). As if miraculously, a few years after Umma died, Zauner’s itinerant music career ignited. The band she has fronted, Japanese Breakfast, recorded an album, Psychopop (with a song she wrote about her mother, “In Heaven”). Then they toured the U.S. and South Korea. Although her mother was skeptical about a musical career, Zauner imagined that Umma would be “glad that I had finally found a place where I belonged” (233). 

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Five years into writing about her mother’s slow decline from a respiratory illness, Joanne Jacobson was diagnosed with a rare, life-threatening blood disease. That discovery dissolved the illusion that she and her mother had separate fates. “How could I continue writing about my mother as though I were observing her from outside the circle of Illness?” Jacobson asks (27). She can’t. And Every Last Breath becomes, as its subtitle discloses, “A Memoir of Two Illnesses.” Doubling its concern, Jacobson’s memoir in essays becomes a richer, more urgent, and ironic revision of her original project.  

With writerly attentiveness, perceptive intelligence, and some impatience, the four opening essays witness the negotiations that Florence Jacobson makes with her body, her environment, and her psyche. From a distanced perspective, Jacobson wonders at her mother’s courage and stubborn animal will to go on. Her mother’s slow pace and reluctance to let go—of her possessions, her habits, her life—initially frustrate and puzzle Jacobson. She even expresses impatience with the constant sound of her mother’s oxygen pump filling the apartment, the inconvenient bulk of the oxygen canister, the tangles of tubing connecting the machine with her mother’s nostrils. 

 As Jacobson’s diagnosis closes the distance she perceived between herself and her mother, it ignites the memoir’s transformative insight. It’s first articulated at the end of the essay titled “Mirror Writing” and it sustains the rest of the memoir. Realizing that her mother might outlive her, Jacobson writes: “. . . I can no longer pretend that the ragged approach of death is likely to be smoothed by nature’s grace, or by the natural order. So long as I believed I was writing about my mother, I was able to hold mortality at a distance . . . Now in the mirror of my mother’s aging face I see myself” (29). In “Dead Reckoning,” when Jacobson learns that her blood is starved for oxygen, she hears her “own lungs fall into the thrumming motor’s pulse” of her mother’s respirator. Revising her response to the technology, she writes that it is “the sound of death being pushed mechanically away that is audible to me now—steadily asserting its nearness . . .” (63-4). Jacobson’s descriptions of her hospitalizations and treatments (“Written in Blood,” “If My Disease Were an Animal”) take her on solo flights toward her new understanding of herself and the “call to the imagination” that her experience issues (59). Jacobson’s elegant and vulnerable rendering of her efforts to survive pain, uncertainty, and terrifying treatments register her own courage and will to go on.  

The final essays bring the shared destinies of daughter and mother together. Jacobson thinks of them as “invisibly entwined, cellular,” as she recalls that mothers’ bodies can absorb their fetuses’ cells (88). In “Book of Names,” Jacobson’s closing essay, she and her mother read out the names in Florence’s heavily edited address book, tracking the alterations in the circumstances of those whose lives she’s shared. It invokes the lists in Genesis. Begotten. Then gone.

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is an exuberant film by and about people who have been marginalized on screen and in their lives. It opens with black and white archival footage of Camp Jened, a quirky, free-spirited, counter-culture summer camp for disabled teenagers in New York’s Catskilll Mountains. One camper called it a utopia. The second and longer part of the film follows several former campers into their adult lives. They become parents, spouses, professionals, and disability rights activists at a crucial historic moment for disability legislation. Both parts of the film propose that the liberty and solidarity experienced at Jened emboldened several of the campers to seek opportunity and equality, for themselves and others, in the world beyond their camp.

Located near Woodstock, geographically and culturally, Jened offered a space free from the discrimination the summer residents encountered elsewhere. Campers could engage in uninhibited physical activities, uncensored storytelling, self-governance, mutual caretaking, real friendships, irreverent insider humor, romance, and fun. One powerful scene allows viewers to overhear campers with diverse disabilities share common experiences: being disrespected or ignored at school, overly protected at home, isolated everywhere. Another tracks the campers’ hilarity and pride over an outbreak of “crabs.” One camper declares his counselor’s demonstration of how to kiss, “Best physical therapy ever!” 

While the film’s co-director, former camper Jim Lebrecht, narrates the film, Judy Huemann is its political and moral center. A wheelchair user, she rose from camper to counselor. Huemann was revered around camp for successfully suing the New York City Department of Education for the right to teach. She and several post-campers reunited in Berkeley, California, where they became involved in the Independent Living Movement. An astute leader, Heumann is represented as central to a remarkable 25-day sit-in at the San Francisco Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) offices in 1977. She and her disabled colleagues risked their health and their lives—they slept on the floor and improvised medical necessities—to convince HEW to approve regulations essential for enforcing the anti-discrimination section of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. The scene of Heumann’s standoff with the HEW representative is unforgettable. As are the deliveries of food, supplies, and solidarity that the Black Panthers and other marginalized groups in San Francisco provided daily. Other archival footage, including of Heumann and demonstrators stopping traffic in New York City to demand accessible taxis and of protestors abandoning their wheelchairs to pull themselves up the steps of the nation’s Capitol, are startling images of the struggle to secure disability civil rights in the United States. Recently filmed interviews with several of the former campers affirm that, despite the work toward disability justice that remains, they live fuller, more vibrant lives as a result of their experiences at Jened and the legislation they insisted on.

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In Ladysitting, novelist and memoirist Lorene Carey writes candidly and reflectively about the year and a half she cared for her century-old, ferociously independent paternal grandmother. The experience became a critical moment for personal and familial discovery. Carey’s intensive caregiving began when Nana Jackson could not be discharged from the hospital to the house where, for decades, she had lived by herself. Growing up, Carey enjoyed enchanted weekends of indulgence in Nana’s sunlit suburban home in South Jersey, a respite from her family’s life in urban West Philadelphia. Partly in gratitude for those weekends, partly from a sense of duty, Carey made physical, emotional, and spiritual space for Nana in the home she shared with her husband, a minister, and their teenage daughter. Along with Carey’s own artistic, community, and professional commitments, she also maintained the property management business that her grandmother ran until her confinement. Carey’s decision to become Nana’s primary caregiver brought momentary satisfactions along with overwhelming frustrations.  

Carey’s narrative agilely transitions between present encounters with Nana Jackson and the past: her own past and her African- and Caribbean-American relations’. By doing so, Carey tries to make sense of the complicated woman in her care, herself, and relationships within her family. She discovered generations of mostly “free-people-of-color,” several financially and politically successful, whose ambitions confronted Reconstruction, the Jim Crow South, the migration north, and the “lynchings [that] made sure that every gain would be paid for in blood and money, if not by [her family], then by other black people, somewhere.” How might that history, Carey asks, help her understand her family’s generations of divorces (including her own), alcoholism, deceptions, estrangements, and the elusive efforts of one generation to build on the accomplishments of the others?   

It took Carey ten years to research and reflect on that question. And then to write, hoping “to clear away the rage, uncover the simple grief, stored in the muscles that seized up then and cannot remember how they were before, and to convince us both, Nana and myself, that she has left this plane. And to forgive.”  

View full annotation

Summary:

Bodies of Truth gathers twenty-five essays about experiencing illnesses and disabilities from the perspectives of patients, healthcare professionals, and families. These personal stories join the growing company of narratives that reflect on the inner experience of illness or caring for the ill and on the social circumstances that influence those experiences. In addition to the diversity of perspectives, the editors have selected pieces about an exceptionally wide range of health conditions: multiple sclerosis, brain damage, deafness, drug addiction, Down syndrome, pain, cancer, infertility, depression, trauma, HIV, diabetes, food allergies, asthma. They also include essays on the death of a child and an attempted suicide.  

The essays resist easy categorization. In their Preface, the editors explain that they took “a more nuanced approach” to organizing the contributions loosely by themes so that they would “speak to each other as much as they speak to readers.” For example, Teresa Blankmeyer Burke’s spirited “Rendered Mute” calls out the OB-GYN who refused to remove his mask during delivery to allow this deaf mother-in-the-making to read his lips to exchange vital communications. Her essay is followed by Michael Bérubé’s “Jamie’s Place.” In it the father recounts the emotionally and logistically complicated path he and his son with Down syndrome navigate as they seek a place for him to live as independently as possible as an adult. This sequence invites readers to listen to two stories about disability from differing parental perspectives and circumstances. But perhaps readers can also to find commonalities in ways social attitudes toward disability fold themselves into the most intimate moments of the families’ lives.  

Several of the essays take readers into a professional caregiver’s medical and moral struggles. In “Confession” nurse Diane Kraynak writes sensitively about a newborn in intensive care who distressed her conscience. She was troubled by both the extensive medical interventions he was given “because we can” and their failure to save him. When Matthew S. Smith was an exhausted neurology resident, he ignored a stroke patient who inexplicably handed him a crumpled paper. Scribbled on it was a ragged, ungrammatical, and urgently expressive poem, which he read only years later, admonishing himself “to cherish the moments of practice” that could “change your life forever (“One Little Mind, Our Lie, Dr. Lie”). Madaline Harrison’s “Days of the Giants” recounts “the sometimes brutal initiation” of her early medical training decades ago. Narrating those struggles has led her to “compassion: for my patients, for myself as a young doctor, and for the students and residents coming behind me.” 

Overall, the essays range widely across medical encounters. After attending her husband’s death, Meredith Davies Hadaway (“Overtones”) became a Certified Music Practitioner who plays the harp to calm hospice patients. Dr. Taison Bell graciously thanks a pharmacist that he regards as a full partner in his treatment of patients (“A Tribute to the Pharmacist”). Tenley Lozano (“Submerged”), a Coast Guard veteran, was traumatized first by the various abuses of male supervisors, once nearly drowning, and then by her struggle to receive psychiatric care.  

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction — Secondary Category: Visual Arts /

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Devan Stahl’s opening essay in this unusual book explores the tension between her lived experience of being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in her twenties and her physicians’ biomedical descriptions of it. While that tension is a familiar theme in patients’ narratives, Stahl’s approach is fresh and generously collaborative. Stahl, a bioethicist, focuses her brief narrative on her uneasy hours inside MRI machines and with clinicians who read the images. Stahl encouraged her sister, artist Darian Goldin Stahl, to transmute her physicians’ diagnostic tools into printmaker’s works, which bring personal meaning and sisterly solidarity to Devan’s experience. Devan then invited Darian and four humanities scholars to write reflective commentaries on her narrative, Darian’s images, and the commentaries themselves. The result is a richly layered, multi-vocal reflection on what Devan Stahl has accepted as “the dark gift of bodily frailty” (xxvii).

Darian Stahl’s prints were inspired by the drawings of Renaissance anatomist Andreas Vesalius that the sisters admired. Unlike their modern counterparts, the older images placed bodies in humanly built and natural environments that are rich with metaphor and theological implications. Darian’s photographic silkscreened and stone lithographic prints, some of which accompany her essay, imaginatively relocate her sister’s MRI scans in domestic spaces that suggest both Devan’s present state: her spine captured in a glass kitchen jar. And her future: a ghostly figure (actually Darian’s) at the base of the staircase that Devan will someday have trouble climbing. Making art became an act of caregiving.

The scholarly essays affirm that a single diagnosis can set in motion processes of interpretation in the context of family, community, academic discipline, and culture. But in this context, they too are expressions of caring for Devan. Literary and health humanities scholar Therese Jones writes that Stahl’s narrative “testifies to [her] hope of transcending or at least managing the alienation and incoherence of a disrupted life” (49). Literature professor Kirsten Ostherr links the Stahls’ collaborative projects with the patient empowerment movement, where creative expression offers one way to resist “the technomediated patient narrative” (71). Two of Devan Stahl’s theological studies professors contribute the remaining essays. Ellen T. Armour believes that the Stahls’ projects suggest the value of engaging the medical humanities in pastoral practice and vice versa, especially to challenge biomedicine’s claims to mastery and its “disavowal of vulnerability” (89). Jeffrey P. Bishop, who is also a physician, understands a patient’s position within the asymmetric power of medicine. Yet he also resists “the power ontology that animates so much of the West” (102). He offers instead a vision of accepting “the dark gift” of the fragility of the body, which can be both humbling and liberating (105). Viewing one of Darian’s images, he writes, “calls me out of myself” (105).

In Devan Stahl’s final reflection on her colleagues’ commentaries and her sister’s art, she concludes that sharing her experience has revealed both a “power in submission” and her responsibility to other patients (112). Her discovery leads her to a “new image” of herself and acceptance of Bishop’s observation: “Flesh calls the self into question” (115, 103).

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video — Secondary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

The opening of the documentary Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement is meant to startle. A young woman (disabled performance artist Sue Austin) in a motorized wheelchair fitted with transparent plastic fins gracefully glides underwater around seascapes of coral and populations of tropical fish. The scene dislodges expectations about what wheelchairs can do and where they belong. It creates what for many are unlikely associations among disability, wonder, joy, freedom, and beauty. Watching Austin incites questions about what this languid and dreamy scene might have to do with human enhancement, which more predictably brings to mind dazzling mechanical, chemical, or genetic interventions that surpass the ordinariness of a wheelchair and extend human capacities. But this gentle scene opens the way for the film’s conversations about the ethics and meanings of human enhancement that emphasize perspectives by people with disabilities.  

Regan Brashear’s film features interviews with and footage of people living with disabilities as they move in varied ways through their environments—home, workplace, airport, therapy lab, city street. Photographs, news footage, and performances by mixed-ability dance companies complement their stories. We also hear from a transhumanist, academicians, and activists. Together they express a wider range of views about human enhancement than seems possible in an hour-long film.  

Often contrastive views are paired or clustered. For instance, double amputee Hugh Herr, Director of MIT’s Biomechtronics Group, brags that his carbon-fiber and other prosthetic legs will outperform the biological legs of aging peers. His lab develops robotic limbs controlled by biofeedback, and he intends to end disability through mechanical technologies. Gregor Wolbring, a biochemist and bioethics scholar who was born without legs, regards himself as a version of normal and rejects being fixed. “I’m happy the way I am!” he exuberantly proclaims. Rather than strive for normalcy through restorative technology, Wolbring urges acceptance of imperfection.  

Altogether, the interviewees raise questions about how to respond to differences among human bodies: focus on corrections toward achieving a concept of “normal”? accept diversity? extend human potential? The interviews call out underlying assumptions about disability that influence our answers. Do we assume that disability is an aberration that should be erased? A condition located in individual bodies? A condition brought about by unaccommodating social and built environments? Or, as disabled journalist John Hockenberry proposes, “a part of the human story”?

Fixed
also asks what the social and ethical consequences of pursuing enhancements might be. Do they equalize opportunity? Do they misplace priorities by channeling attention and resources away from basic health care and ordinary, essential technologies, such as reliable, affordable wheelchairs? Are biological, chemical, and mechanical enhancements indispensible opportunities to extend human experience, as transhumanist James Hughes claims? Do we have an ethical responsibility to enhance, whether to correct or extend?
                                                                                              
Hockenberry mentions that we already enhance. Think of eyeglasses, telescopes, hearing aids. People with disabilities, he points out, are typically the first adopters of technologies, such as computer-brain interfaces, that are destined for wider use. Archival film footage of warfare during this discussion reminds us what many of those uses have been. Should we worry, he asks, about using people with disabilities as research subjects? Or should we say with recently paralyzed Fernanda Castelo, who tests an exoskeleton that braces her body as it moves her forward: “Why not”?  

Considering whether we should trust technology to create equality or treat each other equally in the presence of our differences, disability rights attorney Silvia Yee poses the film’s most vital question: “Which is the world you want to live in?” While Fixed gives a fair hearing to disparate answers, the closing image is suggestive. A woman in a motorized wheelchair offers a lift to someone struggling to push a manual chair uphill. She invites him to grasp the back of hers and they roll forward together.

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

Carol Levine began a roiling odyssey as a caregiver when a car accident left her husband paralyzed and in need of 24-hour care. She regards her husband’s survival as “a testament to one of American medicine's major successes — saving the lives of trauma patients.” But once he returned to their home, Levine encountered a healthcare system that was fragmented, chaotic, and inequitable. Unprepared to address chronic care, it remained oblivious to her needs as her husband’s primary medical “provider,” as they would say. Written nine years after the accident and eight years into her care giving, Levine’s essay recounts the stress and isolation she experienced attempting to navigate that system, to perform unrelenting chores, and to sustain her employment. Her job was, after all, the source of her husband’s managed care insurance, which regularly managed to leave Levine with unpaid bills. Even her work in medical ethics and healthcare policy could not help her locate the assistance she needed to assure the well being of her husband or herself.  Or of other care-giving families.

View full annotation

Summary:

Carol Levine's anthology of stories and poems about the intimate caregiving that takes place within families and among friends and lovers reminds us that the experience of illness reaches beyond clinicians and patients. It can also touch, enrich, and exasperate the lives of those who travel with patients into what Levine calls the land of limbo. This land oddly resembles the place where some Christian theologians believe lost souls wander indefinitely between heaven and hell. For Levine the limbo of familial caregiving is an unmapped territory. In it caregivers perform seemingly endless medical, social, and psychological labors without professional training and with feelings of isolation and uncertainty. Caregiving in this modern limbo, created by contemporary medicine's capacity to extend the lives of those with chronic conditions and terminal illnesses, has become, according to Levine, "a normative experience" (1).

By compiling this useful selection of well known and less familiar stories and poems, Levine increases the visibility of the experience of familial caregiving among works of literature about medicine. While illness literature is typically classified by disease or disability, Levine focuses instead on the relationships between caregivers and those being cared for. Her collection organizes the literature into five parts: Children of Aging Parents; Husbands and Wives; Parents and Sick Children; Relatives, Lovers, and Friends; and Paid Caregivers who assist families. The literature in each section tends nonetheless to represent particular conditions: dementias, including Alzheimer's disease, cancer, and frailty in the first two sections; childhood cancer, hyperactivity, and mental illness in the third; AIDS in the fourth. 

Probably the most familiar and powerful works include Rick Moody's "Whosoever: The Language of Mothers and Sons," Ethan Canin's "We Are Nighttime Travelers," Alice Munro's "The Bear Came over the Mountain" (the source for the film "Away from Her"), Lorrie Moore's "People Like That Are the Only People Here," and several poems: Mark Doty's "Atlantis" and selections by Donald Hall, Jane Kenyon, James Dickey, and Raymond Carver.

These and the less familiar works offer disparate responses from both caregivers and those they care for. The narrator of Tereze Gluck's "Oceanic Hotel, Nice" thinks "what a bad person I was to not even want to touch his feet. . . it made me shudder" (220). The wife in Ann Harleman's "Thoreau's Laundry" cannot place her husband with Multiple Sclerosis in a nursing home because "his presence, however diminished, was as necessary to her as breathing" (116). The caregiver in "Starter" by Amy Hanridge "didn't want to be the person people feel bad about" (180).  Several stories explore the limits of obligation. As is often the case, the son in Eugenia Collier's "The Caregiver" is sick himself, failing to schedule his own doctor's appointments and dying before his mother. Marjorie Kemper's witty, exuberant "God's Goodness" plays out an unexpected relationship between a dying teenage boy and his Chinese immigrant aide, while his parents remain in the background.

Carol Levine's brief introduction to the collection explains that she excluded excerpts from memoirs and selected only very recent literature, almost all from the past three decades. A Resources section at the end includes some introductory medical humanities resources and practical resources for caregivers.

View full annotation

Immortal Bird: A Family Memoir

Weber, Doron

Last Updated: Feb-10-2014
Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Damon Weber's proud father, Doron, has written a searing memoir that enfolds a story of parental love and loss into a medical exposé. By the time Damon turned four, he had two open-heart surgeries to correct a congenital malformation that affected circulation to his lungs. His parents were led to believe that after the surgeries, their effervescent, sociable, academically and artistically talented son was set for life. However, as Damon turned 12, they became concerned about what his father calls "his unsprung height," his shortness of breath, and a strange protrusion in his abdomen (40). Returning to his attending physician, they were surprised that she withheld information from them about a condition known as PLE (protein-losing entropy), which can manifest months or years after the kind of surgery (Fontan) their son underwent. PLE enlarges the liver and allows proteins to leak from the intestines. Without adequate protein, Damon's body could not grow. His father worried that they might have passed the established window of opportunity to treat the complication.

The memoir, which reads like an extended eulogy to a beloved son, fuses scenes of family life with difficult medical decisions aimed at reversing the effects of PLE. However, none of the interventions succeed, leaving a heart transplant as Damon's last hope. As Weber recounts each decision leading to the transplant, he exposes flaws in the way hospital systems operate, in the way families are treated, and in the care provided by the medical team that lobbied to perform the transplant. Damon died after his transplant physician made herself scarce after misdiagnosing a post-operative complication, and an inattentive hospital staff ignored his parents' justifiable alerts to ominous symptoms. Scenes of the hospital staff waiting impatiently at the door to Damon's room to remove the machines sustaining and monitoring him, as his distraught parents say good-bye, are disturbing. When the Webers initiate a lawsuit, the transplant physician cannot locate Damon's medical records. The narrative fully absorbs Weber's sorrow and anger.

View full annotation