Book Review: Taking Turns

twitterlogoBRReview by Julia Brown

As a reader who enjoys both narrative medicine and graphic memoirs, I could not put down Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371 (Penn State University Press, 2017). MK Czerwiec takes her readers for an emotional journey through the height of the 1994 Chicago AIDS epidemic. Czerwiec, a nurse, artist, author and co-curator of GraphicMedicine.org, writes a raw and honest story on the hardships of care (both for the caretakers and patients) that brought me to the brink of tears several times, but never left me feeling hopeless. Information about the AIDS virus and the history of the epidemic, is intertwined with a narrative of personal growth and coping, allowing Taking Turns to both educate and enrapture its readers.

32509945Using her personal experiences in Unit 371, Czerwiec sets out to humanize those with the stigmatized HIV/AIDS virus and to demonstrate the ways in which the act of creating art can be a device for coping with the unmanageable aspects of working or living with an incurable disease. In Unit 371, Czerwiec describes the art room, where patients were able to partake in art therapy:“The art room can offer all of us an alternative emotional vocabulary” (51). Each page of this graphic memoir succeeds in being part of this art therapy practice, providing an alternative emotional vocabulary to the traditional textual narrative. Most panels contain a mixture of words and images that build upon each other’s meaning; some panels only contain a powerful image where words are unnecessary, and others only contain artfully crafted words that paint their own picture. Continue reading “Book Review: Taking Turns”

Book Review: When We Rise

twitterlogoBRThe story will be a familiar one to many readers. In rural Arizona, a white high school student is flipping through a popular magazine one afternoon while hiding from gym class in the school library and comes across an article about LGBT organizing.  The son of leftist academics he’s spent his childhood marching picket lines and passing out leaflets, but until reading the magazine article this seventeen-year-old had never been given language to speak of his desires. The year was 1971, the article “Homosexuals in Revolt!” and the teenager Cleve Jones. And in his memoir, When We Rise: My Life in the Movement (Hatchette, 2016), Jones tells a story that is historically specific yet also gestures toward an experience that many queer youth across generations have lived through: that of growing into adulthood without the language to describe your sexual desires, of somehow stumbling into queer community, of finding both individual love and a broader sense of solidarity within a self-conscious political movement.  When We Rise is a passionately written and thoughtful addition to the growing body of memoirs from those who came of age during the Gay Liberation years.

27917674While it touches on the plague years — we’ll get to the 1980s below — Jones makes a conscious decision not to focus on the trauma of the AIDS epidemic when a diagnosis came with a life expectancy of six months. While he began the project thinking to focus equally on the two halves of the story — before June 1981 and all that came after — in the end he discovered that “the stories [he] most wanted to tell were of the years before the plague, when we were still young and unaware of the horror” that AIDS would bring (291). As a result, readers are treated to a lovingly-rendered, finely-detailed portrait of Jones’ twentysomething decade of couch-surfing activist life in a unique moment in U.S. history where (white, middle-class) kids could drop out of college without the burden of student loan debt, the cost of housing in major metropolitan areas was relatively cheap, and a young white man could hitchhike through the United States and Europe with relatively low fear (or perhaps simply overweening hubris) of threats to their physical safety.  Continue reading “Book Review: When We Rise”

Book Review: Ill Composed

twitterlogoBRReview by Elisabeth Brander.

The matter of gender is an area in which medicine and culture are closely intertwined. In her debut monograph, Ill Composed: Sickness, Gender, and Belief in Early Modern England (Yale University Press, 2015), Olivia Weisser sets out to examine how gender affected patients’ experiences of illness in 17th and 18th century England. On the whole, she succeeds admirably. Ill Composed is a fascinating read that uses a variety of contemporary sources such as diaries, correspondence, and petitions to illustrate how the cultural expectations placed on early modern men and women influenced their perceptions of illness.  

23360229While the book leads off with an overview of the early modern medical landscape, Weisser does not spend much time discussing the finer details of humoral theory or the various treatments available to the sick. Instead, she moves swiftly into investigating how societal norms and illness interacted. In some areas there is an obvious connection. For example, in the early modern period, women were seen as being less rational and more emotional than men; it is therefore not surprising that women had adverse physical responses to emotional disturbances such as the death of a relative or a child falling ill, while men responded to stresses arising from disruptions in their economic circumstances. In other areas, the relationship between the two is less evident. One of Weisser’s more interesting observations focuses on how early modern conceptions of illness were influenced by certain types of writing. She points out that in women’s writing, the authors often adopted a spiritual tone and emphasized the suffering of others as a way to portray themselves as pious and humble. This trait led them to contextualize their illnesses by using the illnesses of others as a point of comparison. In contrast, men were more likely to use their own bodies as points of reference. Their writing tended to focus on closely observing specific sets of circumstances – for example, changes in the natural world, or their business accounts – and this analytical approach is reflected in their descriptions of physical ailments.   

The majority of Weisser’s sources were created by members of the literate upper class, and she states outright that this does create a somewhat biased view of her subject matter. The last chapter, however, is dedicated to the experiences of the lower classes, and is based on the petitions the destitute submitted to their parishes in order to claim charitable support due to ill health. These petitions reveal the classist aspects of illness. While the wealthy could muse about the spiritual implications of their ill health, the poor often reduced it to economic terms – for example, a broken leg could impact their ability to work, and force them to seek financial aid. Many of these petitions also emphasized that their need was only temporary, and that they had always been productive members of the parish. The need for the poor to prove that they were deserving of parish support, and not simply idle, is a concern that remains distressingly relevant even today.

Ill Composed is certainly a work that can be classified as history of medicine, but it also sheds light on how many aspects of early modern life were entwined. Religious life, the history of reading and writing, and economic history are some of the threads woven into Weissler’s text. While it will ultimately hold the most appeal for historians of medicine and gender, it is also a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in the early modern world.

Elisabeth Brander is the rare book librarian at the Bernard Becker Medical Library in St. Louis.  She enjoys the sense of wonder that working with rare books brings her.  They also provide an endless source of inspiration for her endeavors into creative writing, which often incorporate aspects of medical and print history.

Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

BookReviewLogoReview by Tom Bragg.

At its most interesting, the late Paul Kalanithi’s bestselling memoir When Breath Becomes Air (Random House, 2016) is a book about language. It is not, as many reviews would seem to indicate, an introduction to medical humanities, lacking both a primer’s organization of ideas and an author’s inclination to educate the reader. Rather, the book presents readers with the startling idea (to those uninitiated in the field) that science and humanities can be linked, can inform each other, can benefit both patient and practitioner in so applied and grimly pragmatic a field as neurosurgery. This it achieves through its harrowing narrative and by repeatedly contemplating the miraculous powers of language, “an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion” (39).

25899336Always interesting, at times gut-wrenching, When Breath Becomes Air is an account of a surgeon’s life and training bracketed by a diagnosis of his cancer and death, and ending with an epilogue by his wife, Lucy. The proximity of the two ideas—the healer stricken, the health-giver succumbing to illness—sets up the parameters for our reading of the life; we are constantly aware that this is a narrative race against time and, as though we were hearing a deathbed confession, that knowledge prepares us to read with sympathy and extra awareness. Without such expectations, Kalanithi’s early memories and even his tone might convey only a dully impressive catalog of achievements. He seems alternately to overlook and foreground a voice of privilege in his recounting of juvenile literary interests (“Hamlet bore me a thousand times through the usual adolescent crises” [27]), college preparatory experiences, acceptance into Stanford. The young student, sipping whiskey and chatting with authors, roaming the English countryside while part of a History and Philosophy of Science program at Cambridge, finds himself “increasingly often arguing that direct experience of life-and-death questions was essential to generating substantial moral opinions about them”; eager for such direct experience, he says, he was heading back to the States and “going to Yale for medical school” (43). It’s hard not to be aware of the irony: the young acolyte hungering for life-and-death reality, ensconced in systems and experiences that seem to shield him from those realities. Continue reading “Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air”