I am a medical humanist.
This often takes some explaining.
Medical humanities is a diverse field. The New York University School of Medicine defines it broadly as “an interdisciplinary field of humanities (literature, philosophy, ethics, history and religion), social science (anthropology, cultural studies, psychology, sociology), and the arts (literature, theater, film, and visual arts) and their application to medical education and practice.” I find that you often see those trained in medical fields migrated toward the median of humanities–but I am on the reverse journey. I am trained in literature and humanities, but I am a medical historian and cultural studies scholar (primarily of the 18th century, but I dip regularly into the 17th and 19th. Who doesn’t?)
I am also a fiction writer.
Heresy, you say! A researcher who admits to writing fiction, closeted up in the wee hours of morning before time for the “real” work to begin? Well, regular visitors to this blog already know my penchant for the pen… But today I thought I would provide a brief excerpt of recent intersections between my various loves. I am writing a YA series about Jacob Maresbeth who is–for all intents and purposes–a “medical” vampire.
Comprised of High Stakes, Villagers, and The Vatican, this first book tracks the adventures of Jake, his hipster sister Lizzy, and Jake’s best friend Henry (son of the local Big Town Banker). Charged with keeping certain unofficial details of Jake’s strange disorder a secret, they must do battle with a variety of high-school horrors—not the least of which are a research assistant with a penchant for vampire hunting, a jock with a dirty secret, and a blood doctor with delusions of grandeur. Will Jake’s father be able to thwart an increasingly prying medical community to keep the blood supply flowing? Will Dr. Malloy, the nefarious hematologist, get to use Jake as a guinea pig? Will Jake ever get a date?
I provide below the introductory chapter. The first book in the series is now complete, and I am pressing on to the work on the next. (In between teaching classes on the history of midwifery, editing Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, writing a monograph on Gothic medicine, and co-editing a book collection on “monstrous” reproduction. Yeah. That’s what you get for crossing disciplines.)
The Jacob Maresbeth Chronicles
Chronicle one: High Stakes
It was not a dark and stormy night. Actually, it was a hot sticky June about a quarter past one—but balmy blue skies don’t help much when you’re getting very bad news.
See, I live in Newport News, Virginia. That’s not the bad news. How could it be? The trouble is not my town—it’s my aunt. Sylvia. (Make sure you emphasize the first syllable…a fake British accent helps.) Aunt Syl is an English Professor, which is bad enough. I don’t want to be mean-spirited, but reading about dead white dudes does weird things to your brain. And maybe to your face, too; she has these big owl eyes and bigger owl glasses, the better to see old print with, I guess. But the woman’s greatest fault is probably the fact she lives in Cleveland, Ohio. If you’ve never heard of it, I should explain that it’s not a hot vacation spot… in much the same way Detroit’s not selling out for honeymooners.
“Cleveland,” I said. Or muttered, since I was lying on my bed with a pillow over my face at the time.
“Cleveland,” my dad repeated. He was leaning over the large rolling cooler on the floor and counting shiny metallic bags. “It’s—well.”
He shrugged, and the total lack of enthusiasm was not helping me at all.
“Why do I have to do this?” I asked, sitting up and staring at the top of his bald head. “There’s nothing to do there.”
“There’s plenty to do.”
“Like what? Swim in Lake Erie? They caught their own river on fire, dad. And besides, you don’t have to go—mom’s not even going!” Yes. I was whining. No, it wasn’t working.
“Look, Jake,” he sat down on his haunches. “It’s just two weeks. You and Lizzy will have a great time—and besides, your aunt really looks forward to it.”
“You know what’s gonna happen, right?” I asked. “She’s gonna be giving me the death watch, analyzing me and crap.” You have to understand—the woman is like a medical microscope, and I’ve had about enough of that in my short life.
“She won’t,” Dad insisted. But of course that was a lie… and lying is wrong…
“Well, she will,” he admitted. “But Jake, she’s been doing that to you for years. It can’t hurt you, can it?”
Hurt, no. Annoy and belittle, yes. I always come away from her house feeling like a sickly toddler.
“Why can’t Lizzy just go by herself?”
“Jake, be nice. Now, I’ve told her not to cook for you—and I’ve packed enough of these for you to get by on and then some just in case.” He tussled my hair. “Besides, Lizzy will be there, so she can draw fire if necessary.”
“Oh yay, Lizzy to the rescue,” I grumbled, slumping down on the bed again. Lizzy is my sister—my younger sister. But for some reason everyone thinks I need her to take care of me, as if I’d make a mess out of my already bizarre life without her help.
“Yes, Lizzy to the rescue,” said Lizzy, who’d just entered my room without permission. Again. “Because you’re a raging dork. Mom says dinner’s ready, by the way.”
“Just a second,” my father pointed to the bags and did some mental calculation. “Thirty-six. Is that right?”
“Geez, dad, I’m not staying forever,” I said. “I only need one of those a day—if that.”
“Whatever,” Lizzy rolled her eyes. “You eat twice as much as that, and more when you feel all whiny and depressed.”
“I do not!” I insisted, which was a total lie. Who doesn’t over-indulge when they’re bored to tears?
“Are you three coming or not?” my mother asked, swinging the door open—and yes, now all of them were in my room, looking through my packing.
My mother has this way of arching her eyebrows; it’s hard to explain, but it’s like a whole sentence: “That’s all you’re sending with him?”
“Isn’t thirty-six right for two weeks?” My dad asked (he’s pretty good at reading eye-brows).
“Thirty-six!” she crossed her arms. “You know he overeats when he’s depressed.”
“Excuse me,” I interrupted. “I am still here—could we not talk about me in third person?”
This, you might know, had practically no effect whatsoever.
“What, forty? Forty-two?” my dad asked.
“We could ask the blood-mobile to stop by,” Lizzy snorted with entirely too much sarcasm.
“Lizzy, really!” My mother snapped. “Be nice to your brother.”
Lizzy just shrugged and picked up a weird-looking instrument from the cooler’s side compartment.
“What’s this supposed to be?” she asked. I blinked at it—for some reason I hadn’t noticed it among the other piles of junk I had to take with me.
“Is that a—a needle?” I asked. And not without a little anxiety.
Lizzy tossed her pony tail and then proceeded to point the syringe at me. It was attached to several hoses of some sort.
“It’s a portable transfusion kit,” my father said. “Don’t break it; it’s the only one I could find on short notice.”
Lizzy actually laughed until she snorted.
“Transfusion! Oh come on, dad, he’s a vampire!” she said.
“I am not—Dad!”
“He is not a vampire,” my father corrected on my behalf. “He’s epilemic. You know the terminology.”
Lizzy cleared her throat.
“Epilemic,” she began, performing like it was a spelling bee. “Aberration of a neurological dysfunction epilepsy, characterized by brain malfunction, manifested as episodic impairment and psychic disturbances, complicated by hemolytic anemia. Disease of unknown origin, first discovered by Franklin Maresbeth, Newport News Medical, central campus.”
“That’s disturbances of brain function, not brain malfunction,” my dad—the honored Franklin Maresbeth himself—corrected. “But very, very good.”
“Show off,” I muttered, and Lizzy punched me in the shoulder.
“Whatever. And your brain is dysfunctional”
“Shut up, would you?” I asked. “There’s nothing wrong with my brain.”
“Yeah? Can you recite it?” She starred me down, knowing very well that I hadn’t bothered to memorize it. “See?” she added with a wink. “Dysfunctional—vampire.”
I scowled at her, but there wasn’t much point in arguing. Not with Lizzy. Besides, it’s a little true—sort of. I mean, I’m sixteen, not six-hundred. I don’t turn into a bat (I’m actually a little freaked out by bats). I don’t hang out in graveyards, I don’t go ransacking the neighborhood, and, though it would be nice, I’m not irresistibly attractive to the opposite sex. I’m just a tallish, thinnish blond kid with a doctor dad and a blood disorder. But let’s face it, consuming raw blood instead of cheeseburgers kind of gets you noticed, and not in a good way. So Lizzy calls it vampirism and dad calls it epilemia. I don’t actually care so long as I’m more or less supplied with the basic necessities. You should see the basement cooler. Red Cross would be jealous. I don’t know what sort of deal my dad worked out with the hospital (helps, I guess, that he’s bosom buddies with the Executive Director), but faking sick is better than being turned into some sort of ongoing vampire medical experiment. Or worse, getting burned at the stake. I’ve seen the movies; my team doesn’t usually win. The trouble is, faking sick is hard to do when you are so incredibly healthy. And Lizzy, who is the family actress, will tell you quite readily that I can’t act to save my life. Literally. And that’s why this two week trip was such a fuss. It was the first time Lizzy and I were going to see Aunt Syl without my parents around to run interference.
And frankly, it didn’t seem worth the effort to me.
“We could just cancel the trip, you know,” I said, interrupting an ongoing conversation about—well, me.
“Jake, you’re going. I’ll get ten more from the cooler after dinner and bring them up,” my mother was saying.
My dad nodded agreement.
“Son, make sure you keep that thing plugged in,” he said, referring to the porto-refrigerator. “Now go wash up for dinner.”
I heaved a sigh. I never seem to get my way around here. Even about dinner. I don’t actually eat with my family. I haven’t touched solids since I was eight, so even if I wasn’t “allergic” to everything (as my aunt believes), I probably don’t have much of a digestive system left anyhow. Still, there are some family rituals you don’t get out of, so I plugged the refrig-o-mat into the wall outlet and hustled to join everyone else. Aunt Syl was set to arrive around nine that night; she was staying in the downstairs guest room so that we could all get a “fresh early start” the next morning.
And of course, being me, mornings are not my thing.
Actually, mornings are so not my thing that I don’t remember much about the beginning of the trip north. I more or less woke up in the back seat of Aunt Syl’s car—a black Honda Civic—somewhere north of Warrenton, VA on highway 66.
“Er?” I mumbled. “Where are we?”
“About six hours away, now,” Aunt Syl said cheerfully. Cheerful is her basic disposition, really. “Are you feeling quite well? We could stop if you feel the least bit fatigued—or ailing—or ill-at-ease. Are you comfortable? Tired?”
I blinked. Correction: cheerful and wordy.
“Fine,” I said, clearing my throat.
“Throat tickle? I have lozenges, you know—your father didn’t mention a throat tickle. Is it symptomatic?” She was staring at me through the rear-view mirror, the chain of her rimmed glasses bouncing around and blinding me with reflected sunlight. So, given that and the fact I’d woken up 45 seconds earlier, I just sat there with my mouth open.
“He does that when he wakes up, you know,” Lizzy said. “It’s so difficult for him. He’s terribly slow in the head when he wakes up.”
I grit my teeth and prepared to defend myself, but of course I am a little slow when I first wake up, so that didn’t go very well.
“It’s—I’m—what?” was about as good as I could do.
“See?” Lizzy said, casting a very malicious grin at me over her shoulder. I kind of hate her, a little. “Now, what were you saying about the theatre?”
“Oh you will truly love it!” Aunt Syl winked one of her big owl-eyes and gave the steering wheel a little slap. “Com-plete-ly renovated! Gorgeous frescos! Absolutely astonishing work!”
I could tell Lizzy was starting to salivate. She’s got acting on the brain, for some reason. I suppose it’s only natural since she’s a drama queen to begin with.
“And we’ll go to the plays?” she asked, forgetting to act cool and looking for a minute like she really was just a fourteen-year-old theatre geek.
“Certainly we will! The Shakespeare festival is just kicking off! But that is hardly paramount to your real entertainment for the season! I have quite a surprise for you, Lizzy dear! Quite!”
Aunt Syl gave her head a little shake, making her unruly brownish-red curls boing all over. I sometimes can’t believe she and my mother are in the same family…how does a pale, sleek blond and a frazzly, freckled red-head end up sisters, I want to know? And how come my mother—the one with real sense in my opinion—isn’t the one with a PhD?
“A surprise?” Lizzy asked, fiddling with the air-conditioning vent. “What could be better than tickets to the shows?”
My aunt gave a little shiver of—I don’t know, happiness, let’s say—and leaned toward Lizzy.
“How would you like to be in a play? Mmmm?” Uh-oh, I thought. Lizzy’s gonna have a heart attack.
“In one? Really?” Lizzy’s normally got a narrow I-know-more-than-you expression, but her eyes were almost as big as Syl’s for a minute. My aunt leaned back with a satisfied thump (and a lot of clinking, since it shuffled all of her various beads and bangles).
“Yes, really. As an extra, of course, and I know that isn’t terribly flattering by itself. But I do have one little surprise left!” She said.
I rolled my eyes. No one ever has surprises for me, you’ll notice…probably afraid I’d have some sort of fit. Of course, at the moment, Lizzy looked like she might have one if Aunt Syl didn’t quit beating around the bush.
“Another—?” She asked, leaning forward as if proximity would weedle it out.
“I have enrolled you in an acting class! I college class, Lizzy dear, with a gifted actor and head of the theatre department!”
“Aunt Syl—Oh! Thanks so much, it’s—” Lizzy started.
“It starts in two weeks!” Aunt Syl interrupted with another wheel slap. And now, of course, I started seeing a potential problem.
“Uh, Aunt Syl?” I ventured. “We’re sort of leaving in two weeks.”
“Oh I know, but that’s easy enough to remedy, is it not? How wonderful! You can both stay with me for four weeks! That way Lizzy can play a part in a real stage production, and then have the benefit of true theatre instruction!”
She seemed very pleased that this had rhymed.
“And don’t worry Jacob,” she continued. “I promise you and I will have a capital time!”
I think I was paralyzed at the suggestion…even though the thought of playing an invalid in boring stupid Cleveland for my over-zealous aunt was almost incentive to jump out of a moving car. Lizzy recovered a little more quickly.
“Oh—well, thank you very much,” she said a little tightly. “Mom and dad will surely want to hear all about this. Don’t you think so, Jake?”
Oh, I did indeed.