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…
Although I could no longer save Adriaen, perhaps I could give his body form in the painting, give his death some kind of reality, restoring, at the very least, a sense that he was a human man and not just a corpse. (194)
In Nina Siegal’s The Anatomy Lesson: A Novel (Anchor Books, 2014), the story behind one of Rembrandt Van Rijn’s earliest successes comes to life in homage to the great artist’s ability to make the macabre positively luminous. In order to write this novel, Siegal, an American journalist and novelist who lives in Amsterdam, clearly did a great deal of research, and her book both informs and delights the modern reader interested in the artistic and scientific world of the Dutch Golden Age.
Siegal earned a BA in English at Cornell, completed her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and earned several fellowships towards researching and writing this novel. The Anatomy Lesson takes a decidedly different direction from the genre and tone of her first novel, A Little Trouble with the Facts (2008). This debut work featured a young and ambitious New York journalist investigating the mysterious death of a famed graffiti artist and was acclaimed for cleverly revamping the noir detective genre by wedding it to chick lit. The thread that connects her first novel to The Anatomy Lesson is art, clearly an area of expertise and a fascination for Siegal whose journalistic writing also focuses primarily on the art world of today and the past. This affection for art characterizes each page of The Anatomy Lesson. Readers who love art and enjoy imagining the worlds out of which famous artworks emerged will delight in this novel. Continue reading “Book Review: The Anatomy Lesson”
Alien Landscapes?: Interpreting Disordered Minds (Harvard University Press, 2014) reflects author Jonathan Glover’s longstanding interest in the intersection of philosophy and psychiatry. As his most recent monograph, Alien Landscapes represents the culmination of over forty years of research and interest in the issues surrounding mental illness and human interpretation, identity, values, and responsibility. Glover holds an academic appointment in the Centre of Medical Law and Ethics at King’s College in London and should be considered an expert philosopher and ethicist in matters related to disordered minds.
From the titular question mark used to signal his inquiry, Glover adopts a probing stance towards his intellectual pursuits. Combining qualitative information derived from patients incarcerated at Broadmoor Hospital, expressive portrayals of mental illness, and classical Greek philosophy, Glover foregrounds the importance of going to the source of his investigation. He continually uses the descriptions (whether autobiographical, literary, or artistic) provided by people who have actually suffered from mental illnesses to focus and expand his study. This “view from inside” thus constitutes the central theme and methodology in Glover’s work and supports his primary argument that we must disregard the notion of people suffering from major mental illnesses as being “impenetrably alien” (1). Continue reading “Book Review: Alien Landscapes?”
This Monday we are pleased to offer a piece on “affluenza” from L. Kerr Dunn. a writer, health humanities scholar, and editor of the collection Mysterious Medicine: The Doctor-Scientist Tales of Hawthorne and Poe. You can find her online on Facebook, Twitter, and her website.
In a 2015 Washington Post article, columnist Ruth Marcus labeled Donald Trump the “affluenza candidate,” comparing him to Ethan Couch, the teenager who killed four people in Texas while driving drunk in 2013. Couch’s defense psychologist argued that he’d been brought up with so much privilege he couldn’t understand the consequences of his actions. This defense strategy relied upon the pretense that affluenza was a legitimate medical diagnosis. It isn’t. It’s worth noting, however, that the term, a hybrid of “affluence” and “influenza,” is rooted in the idea of viral sickness. And it does seem to have “gone viral.” Twenty-first century Americans aren’t the first to conceive of bad behavior as a sickness—or to consider how affluenza sits at the intersection of politics and health. Around 100 years before the term “affluenza” was coined, Nathaniel Hawthorne handled these themes in his tale “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle.”
Set in pre-revolutionary America, “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle” is both a political allegory and a cautionary tale of disease. The title character is a British aristocrat who bears striking similarities to 21st century affluenza “sufferers.” She’s reckless and self-involved, and she treads—quite literally— on others. “When men seek to be trampled upon,” she reasons scornfully, “it were a pity to deny them a favor so easily granted—and so well deserved!” Her lack of empathy is so apparent that “right-minded” individuals have doubts about her “seriousness and sanity.” In fact, her “haughty consciousness of her hereditary and personal advantages” has made her “almost incapable of control.”
Of course, Lady Eleanore represents the British aristocrat’s attitudes toward American colonists, but doesn’t this description of her character sound familiar? Trump has been accused of being unable to hold his tongue—to the point that some have questioned his sanity. Ethan Couch’s defense team essentially argued that he didn’t have the emotional tools to be a productive—or at least not a destructive—member of society. A Ryan Lochte defender called him a “kid,” as if to suggest he should be forgiven because his crime was one of youthful carelessness and not the irresponsible action of a 32-year-old man.
Much like the judges in the case of Couch, however, a British Officer, Captain Langford, believes Lady Eleanore is above punishment because of her ancestry. Isn’t this what Couch’s lawyer was arguing with the affluenza defense? Isn’t this the implicit message sent by judges like Aaron Persky who fail to give just punishments to men like Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer convicted of sexual assault?
In the case of Lady Eleanore, a physician, Doctor Clarke, predicts that justice will ultimately be served: “See, if that nature do not assert its claim over her in some mode that shall bring her level with the lowest!” he proclaims. A cosmic justice does come in the form of epidemic disease. For Lady Eleanore has brought small-pox with her from Britain in the beautiful mantle she wears, a mantle that by her own admission represents her overweening pride. Unfortunately, when justice arrives, it affects not only Lady Eleanore but members of all social classes, indicating that Lady Eleanore’s type of sickness—both literal and figurative—has the potential to ravage entire populations.
Hawthorne’s allegorical tale demonstrates that “affluenza” and all its trappings are nothing new. The metaphor of contagion is appropriate in the 21st century when individuals from across social classes are drawn to and defend the carelessness, bigotry, and even criminal behavior of those who’ve been given every advantage to know and do better. Has affluenza become contagious? If so, how rapidly is it spreading and through what routes of transmission? By providing us a text that touches upon these questions in a broader sense, Hawthorne’s tale invites speculation about the intersections of American politics, privilege, and health. Hopefully, discussions of this tale will include conversations about the importance of empathy, compassion, and social justice, forces for good that may contribute to the affluenza “cure.”
Dooley, Sean and Alexa Valiente. “How an ‘Affluenza’ Label Was Used in DUI Manslaughter Case Involving Drunk Teen.” ABC News Website. (October 14, 2015).
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle: Legends of the Province House III.” Twice Told Tales, vol. 2. http://www.eldritchpress.org/nh/lem.html
Marcus, Ruth. “Donald Trump is the Affluenza Candidate.” The Washington Post (December 31, 2015).
Mosbergen, Dominique. “Brock Turner Juror Skewers ‘Lenient’ Judge Aaron Persky in Letter: ‘Shame On You.’” Huffington Post (June 14, 2016).
This Wednesday we’re pleased to have a post from Julia Knopes. Julia is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Case Western Reserve University, and serves as the administrative coordinator for the newly-launched MA Track in Medicine, Society & Culture in the CWRU Department of Bioethics. Julia’s research examines the socio-material basis of professional role development amongst American medical students. She holds an MA in Humanities from the University of Chicago and a BA in English from Washington & Jefferson College. You can learn more about Julia’s work and current research here.
When I set out to write this commentary, I first intended on penning a blog piece about my own definition of the medical humanities as someone trained in both the humanities and the social sciences. Having come to medical anthropology from a past life in literary studies, my work has straddled the fissure between humanities and qualitative social sciences. I have presented work both on the history and theatrical presence of anatomical learning in the English Renaissance, and on my ethnographic research with medical students in the gross anatomy lab today. Sometimes, my work is focused solely on the present; in other instances, I turn to the historical past to inform my work as a scholar of contemporary medical training. My vision of the medical humanities is one that arrives from both within and beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries.
My approach, however, is but one. I recognize that the medical humanities do not offer a single or unified outlook on human health, illness, and medical practice. In fact, the medical humanities are populated by historians and artists, poets and literary scholars, philosophers and social scientists. Our individual professional identities may be firm—I identify now as an ethnographer and anthropologist, not a literary scholar—but the social, cultural, historical, experiential, and existential study of medicine is simply too complex to be dominated by a single field. The medical humanities (and its ally, social medicine), welcomes perspectives on the humanistic study of medicine informed by our varied native disciplines. More than a single field, the medical humanities often serve as a crossroads: an intellectual intersection (physical, virtual, or social) at which scholars across fields gather in dialogue, whether they identify with a single specialty or as interdisciplinary scholars. For this reason, and regardless of disciplinary allegiances, we can all benefit from the medical humanities as a site of discussion that welcomes myriad voices. Diverse perspectives encourage us to analyze human health and medical problems from numerous angles. As we all carry with us our own analytical methods and theories to this junction, so too do we leave these dialogues having ourselves learned and gained the critical perspectives of our peers. This sharpens our focus anew on social, cultural, and medical problems for which one discipline lacks all answers.
The value of the medical humanities is that they enable all of us to see medical and social problems through multiple lenses. If we cannot fully grasp a complex medical problem through ethnography alone, we turn to historical approaches to complete our understanding of the issue at hand. If individual illness narratives beg to be woven together through other data, we look to sociology and economics to conceptualize the underlying health inequities faced by diverse populations, amongst other socio-medical problems. And, further, when we strive to understand how medical science is confronting illness and suffering today, we turn to nurses, social workers, therapists, physicians, and other health professionals whose day-to-day interaction with patients is deeply informative for our own research. Indeed, clinicians also benefit from our work: the humanities have been widely integrated into coursework for physicians in the United Kingdom and the United States. While obstacles remain in the creation and implementation of medical humanities curricula for future medical practitioners, this coursework has widened the intellectual space in which medical humanists exchange ideas with multiple audiences.
Whether medical humanities programs are physically housed within humanities departments, or whether they are exported into numerous health education venues, they remain a space for invaluable cross-disciplinary conversation. I have been fortunate to serve as the administrative coordinator of a medical humanities and social medicine collaborative that has overcome departmental boundaries in creating a new space for scholarly dialogue. This new university-wide initiative in medical humanities and social medicine (MHSM) is anchored by a Bioethics MA degree track entitled Medicine, Society and Culture at Case Western Reserve University. Though the degree program is housed in the School of Medicine, our MHSM (Medical Humanities and Social Medicine) advisory committee (which oversees university-wide activities in medical humanities) includes historians, philosophers, literary scholars, social scientists, rhetoricians, and many others. Across the university, we facilitate lectures, administer competitive conference and research grants for students, and support faculty scholarship and teaching innovation. In the region, we collaborate with neighboring institutions to spearhead events that bring together scholars in all disciplines to discuss common themes in the social and contextual study of medicine, illness, and human health. In addition, we look forward to welcoming our first entering class of graduate students in the Medicine, Society, and Culture track in the Bioethics graduate program this Fall 2016. These students will complete clinical rotations, bioethics coursework, and multidisciplinary training in medical humanities and social medicine.
In sum, the Medicine, Society and Culture initiative has become another significant intersection at which scholars—both practicing academics and new graduate students alike—are able to trade theories, exchange methods, and discuss contemporary intellectual issues with fellow medical humanists and social scientists. Thus, our program seeks to both produce new scholars who approach illness and medicine as inherently multi-faceted human experiences, and to facilitate dialogues with current scholars within various departments who strive to complicate their own understandings of health and the human condition.
Beyond university programming, however, there are many ways that all medical humanities scholars strive—and should continue—to reach across departments and disciplines to share our methods, theories, approaches, and reflections on medicine with one another. This blog is one such space that beautifully forges virtual connections across academic audiences with a shared interest in health, illness, and medical practice. My own field, medical anthropology, by its nature requires researchers to inform their claims through many kinds of data that necessitate several forms of analysis: all which dovetail approaches in other fields. So too did my previous training in literary studies require me to be conversant in historical methods, in close reading techniques, and in the same inductive reasoning skills that I now apply to my ethnographic work. No discipline is an intellectual island: and if there is a universal value of the medical humanities, it is that it has made junctures out of disparate disciplines. It is at once clinical, scientific, and humanistic.
 Macnaughton, Jane. (2000). “The humanities in medical education: context, outcomes and structures.” Journal of Medical Ethics: Medical Humanities 26: 23-30.
 Hunter, KM; Charon, Rita; Coulehan, Jack. (1995). “The study of literature in medical education.” Academic Medicine 70(9): 787-794.
 Shapiro, Johanna; Coulehan, Jack; Wear, Delese; Montello, Martha. (2009). “Medical Humanities and Their Discontents: Definitions, Critiques, and Implications.” Academic Medicine 84(2): 192-198.
 Information on members of the CWRU MHSM advisory committee can be found here: http://case.edu/medicine/msc/about/advisory-committee/