Book Review: Phenomenology of Illness

twitterlogoBRReview by Niclas Hundahl.

When we think about the human body, what role does illness play? Should it be awarded only minor attention, given that it can be considered an “irregular” state, something that is out of the ordinary? No, argues Havi Carel in Phenomenology of Illness (Oxford University Press, 2016), we must study illness and the particular embodied experience it brings to those who fall ill. For “the experience of illness is a universal and substantial part of human existence” (1). She makes a distinction between disease, the scientific understanding of physiological dysfunction, and illness, how disease is experienced by the individual.  

30211747Havi Carel is professor of Philosophy at the University of Bristol. Having examined illness in much of her previous research, she wanted to bring the full force of phenomenology to bear on the concept, because scientific inquiry is not enough. To fully understand illness, we must see and examine it as lived experience. And what better method to use than phenomenology, the philosophy method most specialized in studying lived experience. Carel focuses on severe, chronic and life-changing ill health, because these have the ability to permanently change how we experience the world, and therefore can reveal much about how we experience the world before illness. Continue reading “Book Review: Phenomenology of Illness”

Book Review: Re-Membering

twitterlogoBRReview by Sandra G. Weems

An artist, scholar, and now memoirist, Ann Millett-Gallant casts her personal narrative in collage-like form, assembling a collection of vignettes both textual and visual that invites the reader to step in a bit closer, interpret the disparate elements, and draw larger meaning from the whole. In Re-Membering:  Putting Mind and Body Back Together Following Traumatic Brain Injury (Wisdom House Books, 2016), the author recounts her experiences following the accident that nearly claimed her life, particularly the struggle to piece together her fractured memory. Asserting that her “personal history will never be, and could never be, contained by a linear narrative,” Millett-Gallant has chosen to construct her story in the way she approaches some of her art and conceives of her memory: as a composition of words and images that represent “my ongoing process of integrating the past with present, as well as synthesizing my mental, emotional, and corporeal transformations” (x-xi). Thus, rather than a sustained and closely detailed narrative, the book provides a myriad of glimpses. It comprises four main chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion, each juxtaposing accounts of the author’s recovery with color reproductions and interpretations of her art, discussions of other people’s memoirs, artwork, and scholarly texts, as well as excerpts from journals, emails, medical records, art therapy projects, and other bits of text that, together, provide an alternate view of her life.

32283934The rippling implications of the title, Re-Membering, help Millett-Gallant build her narratorial collage in several ways. First, she must “remember” who she is. Because her accident has damaged her memory, she has struggled to remember vital aspects of her personal and professional identity. Second, Millett-Gallant describes how, as a congenital amputee with unique physical needs, she endured the excruciating musculoskeletal responses that often follow brain injury. Learning again to effectively use her members required extensive physical therapy, multiple refittings of prostheses, and a coming-to-terms with the strength and beauty inherent in her disabled body. A third implied, triumphant meaning in the title is that, as the author contends with these obstacles to her recovery, she discovers newfound strength in old relationships and forges new ones. For example, she overcomes feelings of guilt that help her re-member with her family; she proposes to her boyfriend and becomes a member of a happily married couple. In essence, after prolonged isolation and much hard work, Millett-Gallant emerges into society an altered, but altogether stronger, wiser member who recognizes and embraces her agency. Continue reading “Book Review: Re-Membering”

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, 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”