We have always told tales about suffering and healing, yet our ideas of "medical narrative"—the kind of stories we tell about illness and treatment, and the stories our society constructs around medicine—are young and evolving. Here, Michael Blastland, Francesca Happé and Neil Vickers discuss the roles of narrative in illness, care and autism.by Michael Blastland / September 30, 2007 / Leave a comment
Discuss this article at First Drafts, Prospect’s blog
Neil Vickers: It’s a striking fact that before the late 1950s there were very few “illness narratives,” and those that did come to public notice were produced almost entirely in the US. Until the mid-1970s, illness narrative was really just a first cousin of the self-help book; about the nuts and bolts of being ill, not about the effects on your life. What I think began to transform the genre was that by the late 1980s there were a number of celebrity illness narratives that changed the rules significantly—like William Styron’s Darkness Visible—and then there were lots from the early 1990s. It’s around that period, early to mid-1990s, that you start to get the first volumes of criticism about the form, and this criticism is very much about “how do you avoid selling out?” when you’re writing as a patient, especially if you have an illness that’s scaring the hell out of you. One influential critic is John Wiltshire, who is now working on a history of medicine solely from the patient’s point of view.
Michael Blastland: When you say “selling out,” do you mean that the concern is that people may be exploiting something deep and personal in a slightly sordid way?
NV: There’s that, yes—or you might be presenting everything as a triumph over adversity, as if admitting any weakness or vulnerability is a bad thing. The critics agree that it tends to make for a better story if there are larger perspectives. But I think the “I’ve triumphed over incredible odds” narrative is a kind of mania which has rather receded into the past. That was very much in the mid-1970s, while today there are so many web-based illness groups that it’s the online world that really fills people’s lives. Many people go home at six then go online and stay online for the next six hours: they form relationships, get married to people they meet there, all of that.
MB: I can only speak as a carer, not a sufferer—my son is severely autistic—but I think it’s rather a bizarre paradox, considering how inhibiting an illness can be socially, that it can also turn out to be a way of getting yourself out there. I recall a friend of mine, the historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, who would bowl into the office when we were working on a…