The author, a scholar of autobiography and other forms of life writing, has expanded his scholarship to include what he calls "autopathography"--autobiographical narratives of illness and disability. This book is the result of an extensive study of such narratives. The works discussed are full-length and recently published--most were published in the 1980s and 1990s. Couser is particularly interested in issues of narrative authority, in how autopathography can be counterdiscursive to the prevailing biomedical narrative, and, especially, in how autopathography is counterdiscursive to the cultural stigmatization and marginalization that often accompany illness or disability ["insofar as autobiography is the literary expression of the self-determined life" (182)].

Since social/cultural counterdiscourse is of particular importance to Couser, he has focused on four specific illnesses/disabilities that have been associated with stigma: breast cancer, AIDS, paralysis, and deafness (182). His analysis of each condition is diachronic because he is searching for "the enrichment of the genre by successive writers who defy, complicate, or refine its conventions" (44). In addition, Couser asks, to what extent do authors "integrate illness narrative into a larger life narrative?" (14). He considers who narrates illness stories (biographer or autobiographer), how the stories are constructed, whether and how they achieve a "comic plot" and narrative closure.

The book's introduction (chapter 1, "Human Conditions--Illness, Disability, and Life Writing") provides a framework, relating what will follow to current issues in life writing, "identity politics," the culture of medicine, and illness experience, as well as to other work on illness narratives such as Anne Hunsaker Hawkins's Reconstructing Illness: Studies in Pathography and Arthur Frank's The Wounded Storyteller (annotated in this database).

Chapter 2, "Medical Discourse and Subjectivity," develops further the questions of narrative authority, representation, and resistance to a dominant medical or cultural narrative. Each subsequent section--breast cancer, AIDS, paralysis, deafness--is prefaced by an informative discussion of the cultural and narrative issues that are relevant to the particular condition; the subsequent analyses of individual texts further elaborate these themes.


Recovering Bodies is an outstanding resource for the Medical Humanities. Not only is it lucid, well organized, and well documented, it provides insights into important social and cultural issues surrounding illness and disability. For those who are not familiar with disability studies, the sections on paralysis and deafness will be particularly helpful. As discussed in the preface to chapter 5 ["Crossing (Out) the Border"], disability discourse analyzes the cultural construction of 'embodied difference' and deconstructs "discriminatory or marginalizing cultural hierarchies" (179).

I found especially useful the discussion of the "social model" of disability--"Individuals with disabilities are handicapped or disabled by a physical environment that disadvantages them and a culture that excludes or stigmatizes them" (180). The cultural construction of deafness, by different elements in the deaf community and by those who are not deaf, is given a similarly enlightening treatment in the preface to chapter 6: "One significant issue in contemporary deaf life writing, then, has to do with whether it represents deafness through a biomedical model, as a pathology; through a social model, as an impairment made into a disability by an indifferent or hostile hearing culture; or through a cultural model, as a legitimate way of living and being" (230).

In some instances, Couser's assessment of a particular narrative is unexpectedly provocative. His analysis of neurologist Oliver Sacks's account of a leg injury and it's sequelae, A Leg to Stand On (see this database), problematizes other interpretations of this illness narrative. Couser argues that the manner in which Sacks describes his recovery makes Sacks "complicit in the marginalization of the disabled, who inhabit what he characterizes as a world of unreality --who, most significantly, lack grace, not merely physically but spiritually" (189). Furthermore, argues Couser, Sacks quickly reverts (following his recovery) to "privileging lack of disability, compromis[ing] his claims to superior knowledge and compassion" (188). Couser may expect too much of Sacks but his analysis highlights tropes that burden those who are disabled.

Couser draws on many scholars to develop his discussion of disability, including the work of Joseph Shapiro, Susan Wendell (see this database for Wendell's The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability), and Rosemarie Garland Thomson. The thrust of their arguments--that the boundaries of normal/disabled are blurred and can be contested, that society treats disability as foreign when in fact, sooner or later, it is part of every life--highlights, in my opinion, the importance of including disability along with illness in medical humanities discourse and pedagogy. Finally, Couser's point that our culture privileges self-sufficiency, "ignoring the profound ways in which we are all interdependent" deserves our close consideration (177).


Foreword by Nancy Mairs.


Univ. of Wisconsin Press

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