Rita Charon

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Writing for all the co-authors, Rita Charon challenges “a reductionist, fragmented medicine that holds little regard for the singular aspects of a person’s life” and protests “social injustice of the global healthcare system” (p.1). She gives a history of narrative medicine, lists its principles, and summarizes the book’s chapters, mentioning that several come as pairs that present theory then practice. The six principles are “intersubjectivity, relationality, personhood and embodiment, action toward justice, close reading (or slow looking), and creativity” (p. 4).
The basic thesis is that healthcare can be improved by narrative medicine because “narrative competence can widen the clinical gaze to include personal and social elements of patients’ lives vital to the tasks of healing” (p. 1). 
This is a dense, theory-laden book from the group at Columbia University. The summaries below touch of some of the major points.   

Ch. 1, Account of Self: Exploring Relationality Through Literature

Maura Spiegel and Danielle Spencer describe the richness of literature that allows readers to respond creatively. In clinical settings, a caregiver may similarly listen attentively and help co-construct a narrative with the patient. Literature can help us explore “the limits of rationality and positivism” (p. 29) and move from “a model of autonomy to one of relationality” (p. 34). 

Ch. 2, This is What We Do, and These Things Happen:  Literature, Experience, Emotion, and Relationality in the Classroom.

Spiegal and Spencer write that current medical education does a poor job of helping future physicians with their emotions.  Clinicians profit from a more integrated self and will listen better to patients and respond to them.      

Ch. 3, Dualism and Its Discontents I:  Philosophy, Literature, and Medicine

Craig Irvine and Spencer start with three literary examples that illustrate separation of mind and body. This dualism has pervaded modern medicine, causing losses for patients and caregivers, especially when there are power imbalances between them.  The “clinical attitude” (p. 81) dehumanizes both caregivers and patients.           

Ch. 4, Dualism and Its Discontents II:  Philosophical Tinctures
Irvine and Spencer argue that both phenomenology (appreciative of embodied experience) and narrative hermeneutics (privileging reciprocal exchange of persons) help us move beyond dualism.  Theorists Edmund Pellegrino (also a physician), Richard Zaner, and Fredrik Svenaeus help us understand how caregivers and patients should relate. 

Ch. 5, Deliver Us from Certainty: Training for Narrative Ethics

Craig Irvine and Charon write that various humanistic disciplines “recognize the central role narrative plays in our lives” (p.111). There is, however, “indeterminacy” in stories that “cannot be reduced by analyzable data” (p. 113). Narrative ethics urges us to consider issues of power, access, and marginalization for both the teller and the listener. The authors review recent ethical traditions of principalism, common morality, casuistry, and virtue-based ethics. They believe that narrative ethics, emerging from clinical experience and now allied with feminist and structural justice frameworks, will provide a better approach for many reasons. “Narrative ethics is poised to integrate the literary narrative ethics and the clinical narrative ethics” (p. 125).  

Ch. 6, The Politics of the Pedagogy: Cripping, Queering and Un-homing Health Humanities

Sayantani DasGupta urges attention to issues of power and privilege in classrooms, lest they “replicate the selfsame hierarchical, oppressive power dynamics of traditional medicine” (p. 137). “Cripping” and “queering” provide new perspectives on knowledge, for example the untested binaries of physician/patient, sick/well, elite/marginalized, teacher/student. Drawing on disability studies, health humanities, and queer politics, DasGupta challenges “medicalization” and the “restitution narrative” (p. 141).  

Ch. 7, Close Reading: The Signature Method of Narrative Medicine

Charon stresses “the accounts of self that are told and heard in the contexts of healthcare” (p. 157). Close reading, traced from I. A. Richards through reader response theorists, is “a central method” for narrative medicine (p. 164). Close reading enhances attentive listening, and both of these deepen relationality and intersubjectivity, allowing for affiliation between caregiver and patient (pp. 175-76). Such linkages aid healthy bodies and minds, even the world itself (p. 176).             

Ch. 8, A Framework for Teaching Close Reading

Charon describes how she chooses texts and provides prompts for responsive creative writing. She illustrates “the cardinal narrative features—time, space, metaphor, and voice” (p. 182) in literary works by Lucille Clifton, Henry James, Galway Kinnell, and Manual Puig.  

PART V, CREATIVITY            
Ch. 9,  Creativity: What, Why, and Where?

Nellie Hermann writes that “healthcare in particular has a vexed relationship to the notion of creativity,” in part because of issues of control (pp. 211-12); values of “evidence based” and “numbers-driven” medicine are also factors. Narrative medicine, however, “is about reawakening the creativity that lives in all of us” (p. 214).            

Ch. 10, Can Creativity Be Taught?

Hermann reports on techniques used in the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia, including prompts and a Portfolio program. A “Reading Guide” helps clinical faculty (and others) respond to student writing. Responses to writing can nourish the “creative spark.”  

Ch. 11, From Fire Escapes to Qualitative Data: Pedagogical Urging, Embodied Research, and Narrative Medicine’s Ear of the Heart

Edgar Rivera Colón suggests that “we are all lay social scientists of one kind or another,” seeing people in action in various contexts. He affirms an “assets-based approach to public health challenges, as opposed to a deficits-based and pathology-replicating paradigm” (p. 259). We are all embodied actors in relationship to power, privilege, and social penalty. Research through interviews and participant observation show “meaning worlds” in tension with “systemic inequality and structural violence” (p. 263). 

Ch. 12, A Narrative Transformation of Health and Healthcare

Charon presents and analyzes a case study of patient Ms. N. as treated by internist Charon. They’ve been working together for decades. Charon writes up her perceptions and shares them with Ms. N. Speaking together, they “became mirrors for one another” (p. 274). Psychiatrist Marcus discusses transference and transitional space in that experience. A caregiver as witness can shift healthcare from “instrumental custodianship to intersubjective contact” (p. 288).            

Ch. 13, Clinical Contributions of Narrative Medicine

Charon describes applications of narrative medicine, all with the aim of improving healthcare. She describes techniques for interviews of patients, writing methods, and ways to improve the effectiveness of healthcare teams, as well as changes in clinical charts and other narrative descriptions of patients.

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise


This is an ambitious and far-ranging book, the result of years of thinking, teaching, and working with patients. An internist at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, Charon sees a wide range of patients in an urban setting. Also a Ph.D. in English literature, Charon has devised a "Parallel Chart" and other means for caregivers to write personally about the dynamics between healer and patient, to read texts--narratives in particular--and, as a result, to listen better to patients, thus improving the delivery of medical care.

Charon defines narrative medicine as "medicine practiced with these skills of recognizing, absorbing, interpreting, and being moved by the stories of illness" (4). She calls this a "new frame" for medicine, believing that it can improve many of the defects of our current means of providing (or not) medical care. Caregivers who possess "narrative competence" are able to bridge the "divides" of their relation to mortality, the contexts of illness, beliefs about disease causality, and emotions of shame, blame, and fear.

Charon finds that medical care and literature share five narrative features; she argues that careful reading of narratives builds skills that improve medical care, including intersubjectivity between caregiver and patient, and ethicality. Beyond the theory, there are powerful and persuasive examples of interactions between caregiver and patient, many from Charon's own practice. A mother of a sick daughter experiences stress that makes her ill; when she sees a narrative connection, she begins to heal.

Charon sees wider applications. As caregivers understand better concepts of attention, representation, and affiliation, they become more ethical, more community minded, and better healers to their patients. Patient interviews will be different: instead of following a grid of questions, physicians will converse with patients in an open-ended way. What is most important will emerge and emerge in ways that are most beneficial to the patient. Yes, this method will take more time but it will be more efficient in the long run. Bioethics, Charon argues, has been limited by legal approaches and philosophical principles. For her, narrative bioethics offers more human values in how people feel, experience reality, and relate to each other. Finally, there are implications for social justice: why are the poor underserved in this country and in many others?

One of the most exciting and radical formulations comes late in the book: ". . . practitioners, be they health care professionals to begin with or not, must be prepared to offer the self as a therapeutic instrument" (p. 215). This notion links up fruitfully with concepts of energy medicine (v1377v), therapeutic touch (Tiffany Field), and intentionality (Wayne W. Dyer).

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To Render the Lives of Patients

Charon, Rita

Last Updated: Nov-16-2001
Annotated by:
Woodcock, John

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay


The author, an internist and medical educator with a long-term interest in literature (she recently was awarded a Ph.D. in English literature), describes the literary exercise she uses to develop empathy in students taking her required course in medical interviewing. Charon has her students choose a difficult medical encounter from their own recent training and then write, using the first person, the story of that patient’s life in the day before the difficulty--including being treated by the medical student who is doing the writing. Because much of the story must be imagined, the writer’s intuition is automatically brought into play.

Because it is told from the patient’s point of view, the medical student is forced to see the patient whole and without reference to medical terms. Charon argues that this exercise of the imagination yields a combination of objectivity and empathy that forms the basis for good medical care. She also finds that the exercise helps medical students see themselves as their patients see them--and thus to understand, for instance, the effect on their patients of their youth and nervousness.

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