Suzanne Poirier has studied over 40 book-length memoirs describing medical training in the United States. These texts vary in format from published books to internet blogs, in time (ranging from 1965 to 2005), and in immediacy, some reporting during medical school or residency while others were written later--sometimes many years later.

A literary scholar and cultural critic, Poirier analyzes these texts thematically and stylistically, finding pervasive and regrettable (even tragic) weaknesses in medical education. Her three major points are these: such training (1) ignores the embodiment of future doctors, (2) is insensitive to the power relationships that oppress them, and (3) makes it difficult to create a nurturing relationship--especially by tacitly promoting the image of the lone, heroic physician.

While some of these repressive features have improved in the last decade or so--in contrast to the momentous scientific progress--there is a general failure to deal with the emotional needs of persons in training as they confront difficult patients, brutal work schedules, and mortality, both in others and in themselves.

In her conclusion, Poirier describes some contemporary efforts to help medical students write about their feelings, but she also sees the negative consequences of "an educational environrment that is inherently hostile to such exercises" (169).  Her challenge is this: " "Emotional honesty is a project for all health professionals, administrators, and professional leaders" (170).


This is a gracefully written, carefully researched, and inspiring book. Poirier quotes extensively from her sources, grouping their comments by overlapping themes. Her selections have so much in common that they create their own momentum of negative commentary about medical education. The cited passages are powerful, drawing on literary traits of specific imagery, dramatic cconflict, snappy dialogue, and the emotionally intimate reactions of the writers.

The book is intellectually pleasurable, because Poirier draws on concepts from history, philosophy, sociology, linguistics, rhetoric, cultural studies, as well as, of course, literary theory. Another benefit is learning of specific texts for fuure reading; the samples given are arresting, for example, memoirs by Emily Transue, Frank Vertosick, Jr., and Danielle Ofri.


University of Iowa Press

Place Published

Iowa City, Iowa



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