Welcome back to Literary Medicine’s Daily Dose. Today I am writing about pedagogical “Crossroads” of Literature and healing in the classroom. Let’s face it, medical humanities isn’t just about intersecting ideas, it’s about convergences of ideas and people. Here is one example from my own teaching experiences:
Where is the intersection between literature and healing? Between narrative and neuroscience? Between writing and life? These are not, of course, new questions. For me, they recur at the uneasy end of every semester, before the curtain falls on another year. It is a little like tracing the boundary of self, like scrying a mirror for distinctions between mind and matter. What fearful, fitful relations exist between these sister terms?
I spend much of my research life chasing them down: unearthing the history of medical devices, deciphering the rhetoric of 18th century medicine and pedagogy and exploring the performance of neurochemical disturbance in Gothic fiction. Given my position as an English professor and as the managing editor of a medical anthropology journal, this is not particularly surprising. It is not, however, my research that returns me bi-annually to the crossroads of medical humanities. It is my teaching. And I have my students to thank.
Inspired by research completed in 2009, the class titled Monsters, Madness and Mental Disruption introduces students to Gothic novels and to Victorian psychology. In the course of a semester, we examine the relationship between early gothic tradition, psychological disturbance, and our own continuing interest in a genre that asks us to suspend disbelief and join in various dislocations, disruptions, and delusions of the mind. The connection between a class like this and questions about medical humanities is, perhaps, obvious. However, the full significance of these crossroads didn’t strike me until I taught a very different kind of course: Introduction to Creative Writing. We are narrative creatures, after all, and narrative is often the vehicle by which new concepts are brought forward with clearest expression. It is something we can analyze by looking at great authors…but it is also something we can practice by being authors ourselves. And this, I think, is a lesson worth learning.
There is a common anecdote among literary scholars about the contributions of brothers Henry and William James, and I often share it with my students. William was the celebrated author of Principles of Psychology (1890) and is often described as a thinker between disciplines at a time when psychology and philosophy were not clearly differentiated. Henry James, by contrast, is best known for novels like Portrait of a Lady and Turn of the Screw. Claimed by both American and British literary canons, Henry is now more widely read that his brother—a reversal of their original fortunes. The jest is not in regard to their posthumous popularity, however. Rather, it is the ironic understanding that Henry was the better psychologist—and William the better writer. In the Gothic class, we discuss how omniscient narrators reveal the internal landscape and provide the stage on which psychological and neurochemical narratives are performed. Psychologists, on the other hand, provide terminology—the handles later used not only by practitioners but by authors and critics. It is, and always has been, a reciprocal relationship.
What the Gothic course provided was the context of this association—the backstory, if you will. Turn of the Screw was the first text we tackled, and for many it seemed just a “failed” ghost story. The protagonist (a governess) may or may not see ghosts; the children in her care may or may not be threatened by spirits. We are never sure, and the tale ends not with a satisfying dénouement, but with the uncanny and unexplained death of the boy, Miles, in the governess’s arms—and potentially at her hands. There were many rumbles of frustration when we discussed it as a group: it has no meaning—it tells us nothing. That is, we didn’t seem to know the “real” story. However, after reading more of the period’s psychological treatises (including those of the author’s brother), the students took a different view. The text fails to reveal its meaning—and that tells us everything. Henry James created a tale that couldn’t be simply unraveled, a complex and unsettling narrative of potential mental disruption and/or repression (and, in fact, the first Freudian reading of Turn of the Screw was by Edna Kenton in 1924, less than 30 years after it was written).[i] More interesting still, a number of students found the story more frightening in this light; it revealed something that touched their own experiences nearly. Is fear real? What makes it real? And, in the end, what does real really mean? Gothic literature lends itself to such inquiry partly because of its subversive nature, its ability to push and question boundaries.
A brief review of texts published in the last five years helps to reveal this—from George Haggerty’s Mothers and Other Lovers: Gothic Fiction and the Erotics of Loss to Andrew Smith and William Hughes’ Queering the Gothic. Alison Holland’s article “Identity in Crisis: The Gothic Textual Space in Beauvoir’s ‘L’Invitée’” suggests that the “Gothic textual universe” provides space to confront both “pain and the dissolution of self.”[ii] I made a similar argument in my work on Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho. In the text, characters experience déjà vu, but it is also replicated at the narrative level—that is, the “disruption of continuity that forms (and informs) the threat to identity […] underlies the power of the Gothic.”[iii] But for my students, the disruption of identity also served as a means of expressing identity, or those fragments of identity that did not fit into traditional or accepted narratives. The written narrative provided a staging ground, and I began to see the power of creative effort. The class became not only—and perhaps not primarily—about assessing and judging fiction from a critical perspective, but rather as a springboard to students’ own written endeavors. Thus, we drew pictures. We wrote poems. The final projects had a creative component in which students crafted everything from collage and costume to music video, each expressing the subversive and representing the psychological, sexual and gender struggles of characters, of authors, of themselves.
The students had combined “narrative” with “neuroscience” on their own terms—organically replicating what the authors we studied had done over a hundred years earlier. This movement inward, this swooping low over the internal landscape, has become a hallmark of my creative writing classes as well. Only here, we do not begin with psychology. Rather, we arrive there—sometimes unexpectedly—from a different quarter. Writing fiction is a very personal endeavor, and writing poetry is something akin to giving live birth for many. The support network for a class like this is crucial; we must have trust, we must have coaching, we must have—as Anne Lamott would suggest—midwives. The students form small, tightly knit groups. They share their work; they even read out loud, and I have witnessed students deeply moved by these experiences. As the semester progresses, we leave the safety of metaphor’s ambiguity and proceed into creative non-fiction. Here, the work is stripped down—but it is not naked. We spend much of our time talking about the way personal experience is masked, cloaked by narrative that hides fact to reveal “truth.” The question from the Gothic class inevitably returns: what is “real experience”? It should not surprise me, though it still does, how much my students are willing to explore and play with identity boundaries when writing their own fiction. They push themselves, and they push each other, and they push me. I dubbed my last class No-Fear Creative Writers. They threw out whole narrative cycles, incorporated suggested characters, different tones and new perspectives. They took advice, and they gave advice. I watched them go through the painful process of revision, and I watched them read triumphantly at the end of the year—in public. And through it all, I realized what I should have known all along. This is not just writing. It is therapy. Painful ideas, new identities, fears and faith and disgust and mirth were all tried on, not just in the shadows of back-corner closets but in front of peers. That inner struggle for respect made concrete; the long held fear exposed in blistering light—and there, in that fiction, we all found something “real.”
And so, I end the semester in awe of those I am meant to teach. Where is the intersection between literature and healing? Everywhere. I am pleased not only to trace its ghostlike presence in old books—but to be part of it in the glistening, pulsing “real” all around me. This is literature and healing in the classroom, and perhaps it is more a well-traveled by-pass than a crossroads, after all.