Better than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream

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"Elliott's absorbing account will make readers think again about the ways that science shapes our personal identities."—American Scientist
Americans have always been the world's most anxiously enthusiastic consumers of "enhancement technologies." Prozac, Viagra, and Botox injections are only the latest manifestations of a familiar pattern: enthusiastic adoption, public hand-wringing, an occasional congressional hearing, and calls for self-reliance.
In a brilliant diagnosis of our reactions to self-improvement technologies, Carl Elliott asks questions that illuminate deep currents in the American character: Why do we feel uneasy about these drugs, procedures, and therapies even while we embrace them? Where do we draw the line between self and society? Why do we seek self-realization in ways so heavily influenced by cultural conformity?

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Editorial Reviews

Washington Post Book World
“A superbly crafted book.”
Scientific American
“Elliott grips the reader's attention all the way.”
“An impressive achievement.”
The Washington Post
Better Than Well is a superbly crafted book. Lucidly written, often funny, it offers a penetrating look at our self-obsessed, over-medicalized, enhancement-addicted society. But Elliott goes further than this. Better Than Well also lays the groundwork for thinking about the difficult and contentious issues surrounding gene therapy and human genetic engineering. One day, parents will be able to practice the ultimate form of enhancement, endowing their offspring with desirable genes. — Shannon Brownlee
Publishers Weekly
Elliott, a professor of bioethics and philosophy at the University of Minnesota, has discovered one of the biggest American maladies and fears-social phobia-and knows that Americans are on the hunt for the cure. His book reads like a travelogue that takes readers through the many forms of remedy, from Viagra, Paxil, and Botox, to the other American disease, "boredom" and our various responses to it. In the 19th century, "personalities were not just facades but outward indicators," he writes, that revealed you "as you really were." Adding to our self-consciousness, are "mirrors, photographs, films, television, home video, and the World Wide Web." We watch celebrities who are aware that they are being watched, and compounding the problem is "the strange loneliness and alienation that comes from watching." Arguing that "now we are excessively self-conscious about being self-conscious," Elliott, packing the book with intriguing examples of manifestations as well as cultural references, examines our self-consciousness and the roots of it. The writing is intelligent and thought provoking, but readers looking for a self-help book or any easy answer will not find it here. (Feb.) Forecast: The publishers compare this to such books as Listening to Prozac, but readers will find this much more philosophical. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Why do Americans place so much emphasis on individual identity and self-fulfillment? How does the concept of self vary from one culture to the next? Does the use of enhancement procedures or drugs make you more true to your "real" self, or does it make you a fraud? Why do so many Americans embrace these new technologies yet still feel uncomfortable about resorting to them? In this engrossing book, Elliott (bioethics & philosophy, Univ. of Minnesota) goes beyond cosmetic surgery to examine enhancements such as antianxiety drugs, steroids, growth hormones, cochlear implants, gene therapy, and Botox to analyze why many Americans think that they have an obligation to drive themselves to be better and better. Elliott argues that as we become obsessed with fitting in, we are susceptible to peer pressure and marketing campaigns aimed at selling us products and procedures that will make our lives "better." While titles like Peter Cramer's Listening to Prozac and Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism debate the pros and cons of using enhancement technologies, Elliott helps us understand why people choose them in the first place. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/02.]-Tina Neville, Univ. of South Florida at St. Petersburg Lib. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Elliott (Bioethics and Philosophy/Univ. of Minnesota) examines the American fascination with "enhancement technologies," techniques provided by medical science for transforming, improving, or even discovering one’s true self. A participant for five years in a Canadian research project examining how new technologies illuminate issues of identity, Elliott looks for answers not only in professional literature but also in conversations with the people involved: psychiatrists and other clinicians, patients, clients, and consumers. And he looks at our culture, the movies, books, television shows, and commercials that shape people’s perceptions of their world and expectations of themselves. His scope is broad, and the result is both entertaining and surprising. Opening with a discussion of Stephen Hawking’s voice synthesizer and an "accent-reduction clinic" in North Carolina, he moves on to consider drugs that reduce social anxieties or calm hyperactivity, cosmetic surgery that alters the size of appendages or changes gender, human growth hormones that increase stature, treatments that change the color of hair or skin, and cochlear implants that ameliorate deafness. He asks what these enhancement technologies mean to the people who choose them and what these choices say about Americans’ ideas of success, self-improvement, and self-esteem. The proper use of enhancement technologies and the way in which public identification and description of a condition contribute to its spread come under scrutiny in a chapter on apotemnophilia, a bizarre psychosexual attraction to the idea of being an amputee. Elliott also explores such lesser body modifications as tattooing and piercing. Shorter versions of"Amputees by Choice" and "Pilgrims and Strangers" appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and the Hedgehog Review, respectively, and many other chapters have a similar stand-alone quality. An absorbing read that probes our foibles and uncertainties with gentleness, wisdom, and humor.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393325652
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/19/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 888,535
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

Carl Elliott is a professor of bioethics and philosophy at the University of Minnesota. He lives in Minneapolis.

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Table of Contents

1 The perfect voice 1
2 The true self 28
3 The face behind the mask 54
4 The loneliness of the late-night television watcher 77
5 The identity bazaar 100
6 Three ways to feel homesick 129
7 Pilgrims and strangers 161
8 Resident aliens 186
9 Amputees by choice 208
10 Bringing up baby 237
11 Second acts 273
12 Conclusion: the tyranny of happiness 295
Notes 305
Acknowledgments 333
Index 339
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Kramer, Peter D.
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 20, 2012


    Max sits there watchg.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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