It has been a difficult year. But for some, this year’s seeming upsurge of violence represents only the now-visible crest over a lifetime of submerged struggle and frustration against systemic abuse. History tells a different tale. We are not experiencing a new and dangerous age; No, for there remains a long record of racism, lynch mobs, violence against women, and murder of people professing different faith or gender orientation than those with power and motivation to silence them. In the face of terror–in light of Orlando, of Dallas, of Nice, of Syria, of Turkey, and of tragedies in our own towns and cities–we are apt to feel helpless and overwhelmed. We may be tempted to silence, to the feeling that nothing we say will matter. This is true of victims, who feel their words go no where. This is also true of allies and of those whose race or gender keeps them safe (or safer) from the abuses they witness. What could I possibly have to say? We may think, in shame, or in anger, that silence is all we have…
What makes a person heterosexual? Can heterosexuality be measured in the body? In the brain? Is it discerned and practiced through sexual acts? Emotional attachments? Self-reported desires? Can it be chosen or is it innate? In modern Western culture most individuals are presumed to be heterosexual until they convince us otherwise through acts or affiliations; once the world understands an individual to be homosexual (in the hetero/homosexual landscape bisexuality is routinely elided) — once that individual has crossed “the straight line” into gay or lesbian identity — can that individual return? In The Straight Line: How the Fringe Science of Ex-Gay Therapy Reoriented Sexuality (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) sociologist Tom Waidzunas (Temple University) explores these questions through the lens of ex-gay reorientation therapy status and practices in the United States.
Today, reorientation therapies — a collection of practices that seek to shift a person’s sexual orientation from homosexual toward heterosexual — exist on the fringes of established scientific communities, broadly understood to be both ineffective and often also harmful to patients. Yet seventy years ago, in the postwar period, reorientation therapies were considered to be a cornerstone of treatment for those experiencing homosexual desires or engaging in homosexual acts. How, then, did a collection of practices once considered standard practice get pushed to the edges (if not off the edge) of legitimate scientific understanding? And, perhaps more importantly, how did the journey of reorientation therapy from the center to the margins of psychiatric care in the United States change how Americans understand the nature of human sexuality?
Waidzunas sets out to answer this question using a blend of sociological, historical, and queer theoretical methods. Drawing on archival research and interviews with key figures, he traces how the political agitation of gay-affirmative and anti-gay social movements struggled within and around the mental health professions succeeded over the course of half a century in redrawing the boundaries of accepted scientific knowledge. In response to the reorientation community’s belief that sexual orientation can be changed, gay-affirmative therapists and activists have increasingly relied on notions of fixity: the notion that one’s body carries an innate true orientation that can be measured and remains stable throughout one’s life even as personal identity and community affiliation may change. While effective in marginalizing reorientation practices hostile to homosexual desires, the notion of a fixed sexual orientation scientifically fraught (how to measure it?) and problematically male-centered (most assertions of sexual fixity are rooted in studies involving penises and porn). Ultimately — without discounting the harms done to individuals in ex-gay therapy — The Straight Line challenges gay-affirming readers to re-examine their assumptions that the demise of reorientation science is an untempered win for LGBT rights. Continue reading “Book Review: The Straight Line”
Lois Leveen, PhD is a Kienle Scholar in Medical Humanities at Penn State College of Medicine and the author of the novels Juliet’s Nurse and The Secrets of Mary Bowser. Her public humanities work focuses on how content and approaches from literary studies, history, the visual arts, and related fields can foster greater reflection for individuals and deeper bonds of community among practitioners, patients, and families. Contact her through humanitiesforhealth.org.
Lucy Kalanithi, widowed in her thirties by lung cancer, describes her neurosurgeon husband’s final year not as a period of dying but as a period of living:
By the time he had become too sick to continue working in the operating room, he was writing furiously about his struggles — as a physician, a lover of literature and a terminally ill patient — to continuously seek and live his values. Returning to writing kept him serving others and helped him to live well.
The result of this furious writing is Paul Kalanithi’s memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, a deeply moving literary work. As a record of how to cope with terminal illness and a document of how to accept suffering as part of what makes us human, the memoir does indeed serve its readers. In the coming years, it will likely become a favorite text for medical humanities courses and scholarship. But the greatest power of the book lies in what it tells us not only about Kalanithi’s slow demise from cancer, but about how his own dying contrasts with that of his close friend and fellow resident “Jeff” (like many memoirists, Kalanithi uses pseudonyms for nearly all of those he writes about), whose life ends suddenly, by suicide.
For all the emotional impact of Kalanithi’s memoir, what strikes me most about it is how little attention Jeff’s death gets from critics and readers. Both Paul Kalanithi and Jeff are highly skilled surgeons and caring human beings, yet as captivated as we are with the dramatic and rare death of a young physician from cancer, we seem unable to confront the equally awful reality of physicians dying from suicide. It may strike us as incomprehensible that a thirty-something non-smoker could suffer from advanced lung cancer, but when it comes to physician suicide, we are more willfully refusing to comprehend how wide spread the problem is.
To put it more bluntly, how can we expect physicians to care for and save us, unless we acknowledge how difficult it has become for them to care for and save themselves?
Answering that question can have important consequences for physicians, patients, and public health. Approximately 400 physicians die by suicide every year in the US. Thousands of others experience such intense burnout they leave the profession. Still more continue to practice, despite untreated depression or burnout. In The Hidden Dying of Doctors: What the Humanities Can Teach Medicine, and Why We All Need Medicine to Learn It, I argue that Kalanithi’s memoir—and medical humanities more broadly—can provide an important model for addressing these problems.
I have many friends who are healthcare practitioners, from ER doctors to infectious disease specialists, from hospital nurses to physicians serving indigent patients. Sometimes I feel a little ridiculous (or self-important) to suggest to them, or to anyone who deals with sickness and dying in their workplace that there can be something lifesaving about bringing literature, art, philosophy, and other humanities into their already busy professional training and careers. But the response I’ve gotten from physicians to The Hidden Dying of Doctors underscores how imperative this work is.
“Choose life. Choose Health. Choose SymboGen.”
Mira Grant (a pen name for American urban fantasy author Seanan McGuire) had her breakthrough with the three-part zombie series Newsflesh. She returns with the Parasitology series, starting with Parasite (Hatchette, 2013). And what a way to open the series, with a story that is combination of sleek corporate thriller and mind bending science. As a horror junkie obsessed with the most disgusting parasites, bugs and disease Grant’s new series, while a departure from her previous work, reflects of these passions.
The story begins in 2027, and centres around Sally, who has miraculously recovered from a car accident that left her brain dead. Why has Sally recovered? Well it’s thanks to a tapeworm. Not any tapeworm, a worm that has been engineered so that instead of damaging its host heals and protects that individual. The company SymboGen has developed this tapeworm that means you never need to worry about illness or medication again. SymboGen of course, has become a giant corporation, and nearly everyone on the planet who can afford a tapeworm has one. Continue reading “Book Review: Parasite”
In Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians (Routledge, 2011) Richard Sugg, an expert in the fields of medical history and literature based at Durham University, investigates a previously unexplored facet of medical history. The word “corpse medicine” might trigger associations of well-known accounts of bodysnatchers providing surgeons with much-needed cadavers to perform autopsies on, but as the term “medical cannibalism” reveals, the scope of Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires is much more specific, as Sugg focuses on instances of what he defines as “cannibalism” for medicinal purposes. As such, Sugg’s study not only represents a significant contribution to our understanding of medical history, but it also provides a “revision of the history of one of our deepest taboos” (3) by looking at how, from the age of the Renaissance to the Victorian era, European medicine deployed the systematic consumption of various human body parts, organs and bodily fluids in its attempt to reinstate health.
Apart from offering a highly extensive overview of how various body parts and cadavers were acquired, processed and used for medical treatment in Europe from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century, Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires offers a revelatory criticism of the discourse of cannibalism itself. Sugg highlights that the practice of “medical cannibalism” was the most prevalent and accepted when stories of “New World” cannibalism caused the greatest outcry in the “Old World.” Significantly, Sugg shows how the very discourse of cannibalism and by extension, barbarism functioned as a “potent form of colonial propaganda” (4) and was used as a justification for colonialism: “once labelled [as cannibals], and effectively dehumanised, tribal peoples in the Americas, Africa and Australasia could be ‘legitimately’ civilised, colonised, or outrightly destroyed” (113). One of the greatest merits of the book is that it reveals that the society which condemned forms of cannibalism as savage and uncivilised, was engaged in a practice which was quite similar, albeit in a medical framework, and that the two customs overlapped not only in time, but sometimes in their logic as well. Sugg claims that “at the broadest level of religious politics, Protestant–Catholic relations in the mid-sixteenth century mirror the psychology of exo-cannibalism with uncanny precision. The implicit message of cannibal violence was this: we deny your identity; we deny your reality as human beings; and we will prove this by the way in which we treat you” (129). By pointing out this paradox, Sugg calls our attention to the fact that the discourse of cannibalism as savagery was systematically used to other, marginalise and ultimately exploit non-European communities. Continue reading “Book Review: Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires”