Academic journal article New Formations

Reflections on Joan Didion's the Year of Magical Thinking

Academic journal article New Formations

Reflections on Joan Didion's the Year of Magical Thinking

Article excerpt

In 1993, Anne Hunsaker Hawkins published Reconstructing Illness, a study of memoirs about the experience of disease, dysfunction or death for which she coined a new term: pathography. In a move familiar from the brief flowering of the 'personal criticism' movement in the late 1980s, Hawkins confessed that her academic interest had been motivated by her own father's death: the critical work thus shared the very impulse it sought to analyse. In Reconstructing Illness, Hawkins noted a striking fact: before 1950, she had discovered only a handful of published pathographies. After 1950, the genre had haltingly emerged but then accelerated, particularly in the 1980s, with hundreds of texts published. But even more strikingly, the number of pathographies doubled again in just the six years between 1993 and 1999, when the second edition of Hawkins' book appeared. (1)

This spike in production placed pathography at the heart of the contemporary boom in the trauma memoir. In the 1990s, life writing was partially re-oriented to pivot around the intrusive traumatic event that, at a stroke, shattered narrative coherence. The sociologist Arthur Frank saw illness as 'narrative wreckage' and pathography as a literal narrative salve: 'Stories have to repair the damage that illness has done'. (2) This formulation owed much to the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, who regarded narrative as an act of con-figuration which '"grasps together" and integrates into one whole and complete story multiple and scattered events'. (3) Trauma is a dis-figuration of that narrative possibility, but what the narrative memoir promises is a redemptive account of how the post-traumatic self might be re-configured around its woundedness.

The trauma memoir is one of the cultural symptoms that follows from the securing of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a recognised psychiatric illness in official diagnostics in 1980, after a long campaign of psychiatric advocacy in the 1970s by a coalition of activists. It has been my contention that many forms of culture have played a significant role in articulating how PTSD seems to affect the narrative possibilities of selfhood after 1980. (4) The memoir boom is now a vast and complicated delta region with major channels but also curious back-waters, and is treacherous to map. However, it is important to distinguish the tributaries rather than subsume everything into an undifferentiated trauma discourse. For the record, we might distinguish five elements that converge to produce the memoir boom since the 1990s: 1) the feminist revaluation of the autobiographical utterance, at the level of therapeutic practice, life writing, and in critical theory; 2) a politicisation of the illness memoir by people with AIDS, producing a large body of testimony designed both to commemorate the dead and to denounce medical or governmental ignorance; 3) an expanding terrain of pathographies that began with cancer memoirs but soon moved into subsets including depression, exotic or bizarre disorders and parental illness or death; 4) the related rise of thanatography, or death writing, which might include memoirs by carers for the terminally ill, suicide in the family, or accounts of the mourning process; and 5) the re-programming of the celebrity expose to be organised around the revelation of the traumatic secret (a boom begun in England with the phenomenal success of the autobiography of the glamour model, Katie Price, Being Jordan). These elements run the gamut from honourable and political interventions to the plain tiresome and narcissistic. But they are also only the most immediate determinants of the boom. Many of the questions of the ethics and aesthetics of narrating extreme and deathly experience have been determined by Holocaust testimony. This has held centre place in many cultural theories of the representation of trauma that emerged in the early 1990s.

In sum, we might regard the trauma memoir as the exemplary form of what Ross Chambers has termed 'aftermath cultures,' defined by a testimonial impulse that is nevertheless marked by 'a strange nexus of denial and acknowledgement'. …

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