Illness and the Limits of Expression

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A sophisticated literary, psychoanalytic, and philosophical treatise on illness and narrative form, Illness and the Limits of Expression investigates the failings of standard survivor literature by asking how language can be used to express the catastrophic experience of disease. While battling three bouts of cancer herself, Kathlyn Conway became familiar with the "success" narratives of disability and sickness---stories of the woman who still looked beautiful after three successive treatments or the man who ran five miles a day during chemotherapy---all of which emphasized victory born of hope and positive thinking.

Believing that such upbeat accounts insufficiently portrayed the intense emotional strain, physical deterioration, and mental terror brought about by illness, Conway began to investigate the far less popular nontriumphalist genres of illness literature---by authors such as Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, and Susan Sontag. Instead of shying away from the uglier sides of illness, these writers explore how disease and devastation separate us from ourselves and why much can be learned about identity and language by noting this division.

Through her readings of both sets of narratives, Conway shows how difficult it is to express the reality of serious illness or injury, but she also argues that by wrestling with this challenge, writers can offer a better picture of the complex relationship between body and mind.

Kathlyn Conway is a practicing psychotherapist and the author of Ordinary Life: A Memoir of Illness. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

"This is a wonderful book, whose message is extremely important but all too rarely heard: most published accounts of illness gloss over its difficulties and horror. People struggling with serious illness and disability deserve more. With clear writing and sound scholarship, Illness and the Limits of Expression takes on this challenge and should be read by both scholarly and general audiences."
---Emily Abel, University of California, Los Angeles

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Product Details

Table of Contents

Introduction     1
The Cultural Story of Triumph     17
Character: The Damaged Self     41
Plot: The Disrupted Life     57
Searching for a Language     75
Narrative Form     99
Endings     119
Conclusion     133
Notes     139
Index     153
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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2007

    Beyond Triumph

    Cancer ¿is not simply an opportunity for personal growth¿ writes Dr. Kathlyn Conway in this timely and lucid book about illness and how we talk about it. Conway knows her subject first-hand. Five years ago, she wrote: ¿I¿m a 47-year-old woman with one husband, two children, and three cancers.¿ She was diagnosed with Hodgkins disease at 26, breast cancer at 43, and lymphoma at 45. Her 2002 memoir ¿Ordinary Life¿ told the story of agonizing decisions and medical mistakes. (At first her radiation was aimed too high, which knocked out her hearing in one ear. Then it was aimed too low, which caused cancer in the other breast.) When she finally returns to ¿ordinary life,¿ her young daughter, Molly, asks, ¿Is breast cancer over, Mom?¿ She reassures her with ¿Yes, honey, it¿s over.¿ But in ¿Ilness and the Limits of Expression,¿ Conway lets us in on a secret. The day the galleys of her memoir arrived in the mail, her doctors diagnosed yet another cancer. Should she rewrite the ending or stop on a hopeful note? She chooses the latter, but with some ambivalence. Recovering from her 4th cancer, Conway embarks on a project of reading every illness memoir she can find. She discovers that her decision to end the book on a positive note reflects a major trend in American writing about illness. A huge number of authors write about ¿battling¿ their disease, ¿fighting courageously,¿ and ¿winning the war¿¿what she labels the ¿triumph narrative.¿ She quotes William Dean Howells to good effect: ¿What the American public wants in theater is tragedy with a happy ending.¿ New Age authors are especially troublesome when they ask patients why they invited the cancer into their bodies. Deepak Chopra seems to believe that serious illness is caused by lingering resentments, hostility¿a bad attitude. Millions find comfort in New Age thinking because it offers a sense of supreme control to people who feel they have none. (This is in contrast, for example, to the Buddhist view that life is suffering.¿) The myth that we are in charge of everything is worth examining. In refreshing contrast to New Age triumphalsim, Conway assures us that despite having a wonderful husband and supportive family, she was a grumpy sick person, rarely heroic, and that for her, ¿cancer had no redeeming value.¿ She elaborates: ¿We long to hear from someone who admits that even enormous love from others does not erase the essential loneliness of illness.¿ She attributes her recovery not to positive thinking, but to the fact that her cancers were caught early and that she could afford health insurance. (Incidentally, anyone who imagines that being a famous writer, a celebrated journalist, respected physician, or all of the above might entitle one to fewer medical mistakes or better bedside manner ought to read the illness memoirs of Audre Lorde, Barbara Ehrenreich, Anatole Broyard or Oliver Sacks.) Ilnness shatters our belief in an intact self and language is a means of constructing coherence. But language also must fail, because it can only approximate the experience of having body parts¿breasts, feet, tongues¿lopped off. Conway writes beautifully that this very failure: ¿paradoxically allows us as readers to approach the ground of desolation where consolation will or will not come to each of us in our own time and in ways of our own making and unmaking.¿ This is not the language of noble conquest, but in its clarity and authenticity we feel a kind of overcoming. Her book points to a worldview that is less than sunny, to a self whose coherence is always greatly exaggerated and to a psychology that might embrace and map rather than turn away from our basic brokenness as human beings. Kathlyn Conway is an intelligent, steady and loving guide for the journey.

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