Revelations of an Impaired Listener

Frank presents a number of fascinating ideas that have exceeded my expectations by showing how interesting illness narratives are. He outlines how the evolution of illness from premodern to modern to postmodern times. Illness was initially alienated from the disease, which Kleinman defines as the pathological component, because medical terminology existed in isolation as a sort of foreign language. Modern times involved an acknowledgement of illness as a component that was equally as important as disease, while postmodern times have taken this a step further to empower illness with a voice that now echoes through illness narratives.

A fundamental idea that Frank presents is as follows: “The mystery of illness stories is their expression of the body: in the silences between words, the tissues speak.” This situates illness narratives in an in-between state; they transform physical experiences of the body into emotional experiences of the mind, and then translate them into language. Because I’m fascinated about ideas regarding the mind and the body, I wonder how illness narratives fit into this divide and how these aspects of an individual influence this form of communication. According to Frank, illness narratives include four problems with the body: “control, body-relatedness, other-relatedness, and desire” (29). He also categorizes depictions of the body into four different types: “the disciplined body, the mirroring body, the dominating body, and the communicative body” (29).

Perhaps what I found to be most compelling was the idea that there really is no such thing as a singular illness narrative for an individual. Each individual shares multiple illness narratives, largely shaped by the audience and the purpose of its telling. This traps individuals within a multilingual “narrative wreck,” so to speak, a heterglossic discourse. As a result, there are multiple ontologies to illness, and each narrative shapes illness into a different entity. Despite the multiplicity of illness narratives and illnesses themselves, I find it slightly paradoxical that these all originate within a single body.

Realizing that narratives are told in variations has changed the way that I listen. It’s fascinating to see how conversations unfold based on those involved. As I was volunteering at Mott’s Children’s Hospital, I couldn’t help but hear dialogues differently. Conversations with different individuals illuminated different aspects of an illness, depending on the listener: a doctor, a nurse, a child life specialist, a family member, a friend. Just as illness narratives can empower individuals with a voice, exploring them can also provide listeners with the power to hear.

Discussion Questions:

1. Metaphor is common in illness stories. When is it appropriate to find symbolism in illness, and where does the boundary lie? (57)

2. How do illness narratives exist temporally? What transformations do they initiate, especially with regards to individual identity and the multiple ontologies of an illness in the past, present, and future? (60)

3. How does narrative truth function in narrative illnesses, and what is its importance? Frank claims that “in illness stories, truth may be selective, but it remains self-conscious” (62). What does he mean by this, and how can this be seen in present illness narratives?

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