Imaging and Imagining Illness: Becoming Whole in a Broken Body

Stahl, Devan

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

Genre: Memoir

Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol
  • Date of entry: Sep-04-2018
  • Last revised: Sep-04-2018


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).


Imaging and Imagining Illness deserves the attention of readers interested in intersections of the arts and health or healthcare, whether clinicians, artists, or humanities teachers and scholars from college through medical school. Patients, especially ones who share Devan Stahl’s experience of being diagnosed with a life-altering condition as young adults, will find companionship her essay. In pedagogic settings, it can stand alone from the others or be read in combination with Darian Goldin Stahl’s essay and images. The essays that follow are all interdependent on those and on each other.

Without diminishing the necessity or successes of biomedicine, the voices and images collected between this book’s covers offer a less anonymous, more interpretively capacious, more socially visionary view of illness than clinical images or descriptions can. In her forward, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson writes that Darian’s images show “flourishing . . . ensoulment . . . [and] evoke wonder” (xvii). She places them in the company of Katherine Sherwood’s, Laura Ferguson’s, and Riva Lehrer’s self-portraits of illness or disability, and all four of them in the tradition of Western art, including religious art. Garland-Thomson also places the entire collaborative project in the distinctive category of “a hybrid of memoir and humanities scholarship” (x). The Stahls’ project makes the case for expanding that category further.


Darian Goldin Stahl’s prints and other artworks that inhabit and are inhabited by Devan’s illness appear online: 


Cascade Books

Place Published

Eugene, Oregon

Page Count


Secondary Source